Some Top International Colleges Offer Free Tuition

Three-year diplomas, low tuition, and English lectures make overseas study appealing

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As the sticker prices of elite American, British, and Australian colleges skyrocket, a few of their competitors in other countries are keeping tuition low and offering more courses in English to attract students from around the world. What's more, many of the elite international colleges award bachelor's degrees after just three years of study, further reducing education expenses. 

Some highly ranked universities in Scandinavia, for example, charge no tuition at all. And a growing number of comparatively low-priced colleges around the world, including the University of Hong Kong, some of the top Korean universities, and the University of Amsterdam, are offering bachelor's programs in English.

[Slide show: some of the world's best bargain universities.]

The upshot: students with top qualifications and a willingness to live abroad can earn diplomas from elite universities for a total cost—including their living expenses and travel—of less than $70,000. Students who can become fluent in languages such as German or Mandarin can earn degrees for less than $50,000. Frugal Finnish speakers, for example, who gain entry to the tuition-free University of Helsinki, ranked 75th in the world in 2010, can survive on less than $1,000 a month for living and travel. That brings the total cost of a bachelor's degree to less than $40,000 including food, rent, books, and travel.

By comparison, the annual in-state sticker price for the University of California—San Diego, which ranked 65th in the world this year, neared $28,000. And many students take five years to graduate, pushing the total cost of a degree (if students receive no financial aid) above $120,000. 

[Read about the Great Recession's toll on American higher education.]

Of course, there are some downsides to attending college overseas: 

Hassles: It requires lots of extra work and late night and early morning phone calls to deal with distant admissions offices in different time zones. Students also have to arrange for visas, which oftentimes means negotiating with slow and frustrating bureaucracies. 

Less financial aid: The American federal and state governments, and private charities, generally do not award grants or scholarships to students attending overseas colleges. The bulk of the scholarships at overseas colleges are reserved for citizens of their countries. Americans who qualify for financial aid at U.S. schools might find it less expensive to stay at home. The 60 percent of American students who qualify for financial aid at Harvard University, for example, pay an average of about $15,000 a year, instead of the $54,000 or so sticker price. 

You went where? Although it takes nearly perfect math scores to gain admission to schools like the Korea Advanced Institute of Science & Technology, many American employers haven't heard of the elite overseas universities.

Homesickness: Students who travel far for college may miss being close to friends and family. Living abroad oftentimes requires students to get used to different kinds of foods, and, sometimes, different standards of comfort and plumbing. 

But many of the lower cost overseas campuses are working hard to overcome such challenges. Many, for example, have registered with the U.S. Department of Education so American students can get federal student Stafford loans to help pay their college bills. Some are also recruiting and marketing heavily, and providing new services to make students from far away feel welcome. KAIST, for example, awards international students a $200-a-month stipend to help defray their living costs.

"Everyone is so open and friendly," says Ada Ziemyte, a second-year economics major and native Lithuanian at the University of Amsterdam. About 1,800 of the 30,000 students at the university are international, so Ziemyte has made friends with students from all over the world as well as with many Dutch students. She says several of her high school friends who have visited became enamored with the school and have applied as well. "I have really found my place here," she says.