Studying Abroad: A Cost Effective Alternative

Going to grad school abroad may be cheaper and smarter than you think

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When graduate student John Robbins celebrated Thanksgiving last year, he wasn't with relatives and neighbors. He didn't follow the meal with a football game: The sport would have been foreign to most of his companions. When guests had to choose between white and dark meat, several didn't know the difference. And while everyone had an opinion about politics, some expressed it in English, some in Italian.

That's because Robbins's university is in Rome, nowhere near his hometown of High Point, N.C. As a grad student, his experience is surprisingly rare. Although the number of American students who study abroad for at least a semester has quadrupled in the past two decades, many students weighing their graduate school options don't consider earning an advanced degree entirely overseas. Attending a school abroad brings challenges, from the exchange rate to the transition back home. But for the right candidate, a foreign diploma can be an asset—particularly for students who want a career that's not limited by borders or geography. 

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Studying abroad can allow students to learn a new language, adapt to cultural differences, or globalize a résumé. Yet American students often have misconceptions about language requirements, financial aid, or employment status that prevent them from considering graduate schools abroad. For example, not all programs abroad—and outside Australia and the United Kingdom—require fluency in a foreign language, since faculties from Hong Kong to Barcelona teach in English. Also, federal loans can be used abroad, as long as the school meets the U.S. government's eligibility requirements. And many student visas allow employment, typically part time during terms and full time over vacations.

That said, one challenge is almost impossible to avoid: being far from friends and family. Technologies like Skype, which lets users video-chat with one another at their computers without charge, make communication easier. But technology can't solve everything. Two of the 40 students initially enrolled in Robbins's program—a master's in international relations at the St. John's University campus in Rome—eventually left because they were homesick, he says.

Adapting to a new culture isn't easy, either. But students say it's one of the experience's most rewarding aspects. A few weeks into his medical studies at Tel Aviv University, Morgan Kellogg's academic calendar gave him a taste of Israeli flexibility. His year will now end nine days later in July than originally planned. While the change was frustrating, that laid-back approach means the faculty is more relaxed with the students, too, he says. And, he adds, it has been a good reminder not to sweat the small stuff. "Sometimes in the States, it can be easy to fall into the trap of [thinking] our way is the best way to do things or the only way to do things," says the White Plains, N.Y., native.

Lower costs. It is often assumed that a degree earned abroad comes at a pricey premium. But tuition fees at foreign universities are often much lower than at American schools, even when the cost of room and board is included. At $27,000 a year, Kellogg's medical degree costs him half what he'd pay at comparable U.S. schools. For a master's in creative writing at Trinity College Dublin, Ryan Huntley is paying 7,250 euros a year, a quarter of the $42,000 he'd spend at Columbia University in his former stomping grounds of New York. And San Francisco native Sophie Perl's master's degree in public history from Berlin's Freie Universität is practically, well, freie. In fact, at 250 euros per six-month semester, her tuition is half the cost of passes for six months' worth of public transportation. Even so, it includes city transport.

Plus, many master's programs abroad are just one year, while a full doctorate might be three or four. "It's sort of like half price," says Peter Dunn of Atlanta, who is working on a one-year master's in urban design and social science at the London School of Economics. "I get to get in and get out."