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Studying abroad can cut college costs in half

University of Oxford
Peter Spiro | Getty Images
University of Oxford

Determining the value of a college degree requires some new math: currency conversion.

The appeal of not just studying abroad, but getting a degree abroad, seems particularly attractive amid rising U.S. college costs.

The average cost to attend a private four-year college in the U.S. is $42,419 for the 2014-15 academic year, according to The College Board. That's up 60 percent from 10 years ago. Rates for a public four-year college average $18,943, a 78 percent increase over the same period.

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In contrast, many foreign universities are downright cheap.

Earlier this fall, Lower Saxony became the last state in Germany to scrap public university tuition. Germans—and international studentscan now study for free. A semester's tuition at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (#26 on U.S. News & World Report's ranking of best global universities) works out to a little more than $600 at current exchange rates; at China's Peking University (#39), annual tuition for international undergraduate students is $4,236.

Even at University of Cambridge, where annual tuition and fees currently start at about $32,000 for international students, depending on the course of study, there's a price advantage. U.K. undergraduate programs typically span three years rather than the four in U.S. programs.

"Especially since the recession in '08, people are shorter on money and there needs to be more value in the education parents and students are pursuing," said Craig Meister, president of Tactical College Consulting, which has offices in Maryland and in Athens, Greece. "For the right-fit kid, going abroad can make a lot of sense."

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Those kinds of price breaks can help grad students reduce, or even avoid, the average U.S. student loan burden, which is around $30,000.

"I didn't have any student loans, and I don't have any college debt, which has put me in a really great financial situation," said Mia Gewertz, a 2005 graduate of McGill University in Montreal. During her senior year, tuition was $11,085 Canadian—or $8,446 U.S., given favorable exchange rates at the time.

"[McGill] felt like a much better fit than the big football and sorority schools here," said Gewertz, who double-majored in environmental science and political science. She now works in marketing in New York City. "And it's constantly on world ranking lists for various academics."

There's little data available on the number of U.S. residents who, like Gewertz, opt to get a higher-education degree abroad.

In the 201213 academic year, more than 289,408 students, or about 9 percent of the college population, studied abroad in some fashion, according to a new report from the Institute of International Education. That's up 10 percent from 200708. But of those who went abroad, most chose either summer courses or a semester. Only 3 percent opted for a "long-term" study encompassing a full academic or calendar year.

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"It's a small trend of students who do this," said Mark Kantrowitz, senior vice president at Edvisors.com, a website that offers information about college costs and financial aid.

In part, that's because it's an option that flies under the radar for many families. Determining the value of attending college abroad is also a more complex consideration than simply comparing listed tuition prices.

Fluctuating currency rates, for example, can mean a tuition payment that looks affordable in May is hundreds of dollars higher when the bill comes due in September.

"It's a very volatile market—one of the most liquid markets in the world," said Michael Ward, chief executive of international payments company USForex. Transaction fees can add up, too, especially if parents wire funds through their local bank rather than a forex firm that can offer special rates on those repeat transactions, he said.

Depending on the college, U.S. students might, or might not, have access to financial aid, Kantrowitz explained. "There are a couple hundred international institutions eligible," he said. (The U.S. Department of Education offers a search tool to help determine.) Even so, loans may be more available than grants.

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Living abroad isn't necessarily cheap, either. Parents can expect to spend more on travel—both for a college student to come home over the holidays and on recreational trips. And due to visa restrictions, students have fewer opportunities to earn their own spending money with an on- or off-campus job.

"You may not legally be allowed to work in that country," Meister said.

Even if the financial figures work out, it's important to consider the value and fit of the academic program. Shorter timetables to graduation result in fewer introductory and survey sources.

"If you're a history major, from day one all your classes are history," Meister said. "You're not going to have the opportunity to explore."

Or as Edvisors.com's Kantrowitz put it, "If you don't know what you want to be when you grow up, college overseas is not where you go to find yourself."

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Although many international colleges offer programs in English, some don't, and your year of high school German or Chinese isn't going to help much for college-level comprehension.

"It's not really something you can pick up as you go," Kantrowitz said.

Finally, think long term.

The biggest question to ponder is: How valuable will that degree be when it comes to finding a job?

Big names like Oxford will always have pull, but employers are increasingly looking for interdisciplinary programs that are more commonly found stateside, said Hans Hanson, founder of Total College Advisory. For example, he said, "no longer is it good enough to get a business degree or an MBA if you don't include some computer technology and applied mathematics in with that."

"There are enough educated college grads," Hanson said. "But there's a difference between being educated and being qualified."