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Pros and cons of getting that degree abroad

Here's what you need to know before you set off.

Are you the type of person to study abroad?

Not for a semester, as roughly 300,000 American college students do every year. But, for four years to earn your degree.

About 45,000 U.S. students are now pursuing a college or graduate degree in another country, according to the latest preliminary data from the Institute of International Education, roughly in line with the institute's data for 2013. With tuition at American colleges and universities continuing to rise, and some prestigious universities in other countries charging little or nothing for tuition, college overseas holds obvious allure.

For the right students, it's a terrific experience and it will help them have a global career, said Peggy Blumenthal, senior counselor to the president of the institute.

Certainly, the numbers are compelling. In Germany, for example, many universities charge overseas students little or nothing in tuition.

In Britain, the most popular destination for American students pursuing degrees overseas, the tuition savings are smaller. For example, overseas students at Oxford pay about $22,000 to study politics or history and $33,000 to study engineering or computer science, less than a private college in the United States but more than an in-state public university. The University of St Andrews, in Scotland, charges roughly $23,000 for most degrees for overseas students and $35,000 for medical science.

But tuition is not the only cost when students attend college. There is food and lodging, as Americans studying overseas clearly do not have the option of living at home.

Transportation is another cost to consider: Flights to and from Europe cost a lot more than a few car trips home from the state university. Visa costs are another factor for students studying overseas. And depending on where they attend, students may not be eligible for all the financial aid they might receive in the United States.

American students studying overseas may also have to adjust to wildly different educational systems. In Britain, for example, students generally apply to a university knowing what they want to concentrate on, and that may well be all they study. A diverse liberal arts education is not the tradition.

In addition, students at many overseas universities need to be much more self-sufficient than they do on an American campus, Blumenthal said.

"The U.S. is unique in that they see the student as the responsibility of the university," she said. That goes for student services like resident advisors in dorms, and also for professors who might assign a chapter or book excerpt to read the following week, and assess students' progress during a course with tests and papers.

"In Europe and most of the world, it's up to the student," Blumenthal said. "The student shows up to class or not, and does not get a paper or exam per week. They may sit for one exam a year, and that's going to account for their whole grade. Americans are not used to doing that."

Social life at universities overseas is different as well, as Zoe Schiffer, a native of Summit, N.J., found when she enrolled at St Andrews.

For one thing, students are much more likely to cook for themselves. Schiffer opted to go that route, and it has been a real learning experience, she said.

Another cultural difference for American students overseas relates to alcohol, Schiffer said. Scotland's drinking age is 18, and since students have ready access to alcohol, they seem less likely to binge drink, she said.

Her friends at American colleges and universities "find when there is drinking, people try to do as much as they can in one sitting," she said. "It's sort of messy."

Schiffer has not had to contend with a foreign language. But students studying in many other countries should ask themselves, "Can I make friends in a language that I don't necessarily speak well? Am I brave enough to use a foreign language I don't speak very well," Blumenthal said.

Some universities in non-English speaking countries may have programs in English, but there is life outside the classroom.

Zoe Schiffer and mother Amy Schiffer, at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.
Source: Zoe Schiffer
Zoe Schiffer and mother Amy Schiffer, at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

Academically, Schiffer is very happy. She said she knew she wanted to concentrate on international relations and French, and thus had no qualms applying to the college offering those areas of study.

"A lot of my friends would not have been happy" with the strictures of the university's academics, she said.

Student studying abroad in London, England
Franck Reporte | Getty Images

The cultural and other differences may be one reason why some countries are trying to make their graduate degree offerings more attractive to Americans, Blumenthal said.

Some are also trying to offer American-style student supports, she said, adding that she recently attended meetings in France where there was discussion of improving their orientation programs, "but nowhere near the degree to which we help prepare international students to thrive here."

Given all the caveats, is an overseas degree really a good idea?

Absolutely, said Blumenthal, provided you are a self-motivated learner and have had some experience in another country.

Schiffer is very glad she is attending St Andrews.

"I love it a lot," she said. "My friends all love their schools in the U.S., but it's just so different."