American students who are accepted to U.S. colleges ranked among the World's Best Universities may be able to score a good deal. But for those willing to stray further afield, the costs can be even lower.
"I think anyone who is looking at the least expensive option is staying close to home, but there are universities abroad that are less expensive than U.S. universities," says Susanna Cerasuolo, founder of virtual guidance counseling website CollegeMapper.com.
Top-ranked U.S. schools on this year's list of World's Best Universities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (No. 1), Harvard University (No. 3), and Yale University (No. 7), award grants that can decrease their $50,000-plus price tags. At MIT, about 65 percent of students received need-based grants from the school in 2011-2012, bringing down the average net cost to $20,397, the school reported to U.S. News.
[Read more about the 2012 World's Best Universities rankings.]
But when all is tallied, some students may pay less to earn a degree abroad. No public universities in Norway, including the No. 111-ranked University of Oslo, charge tuition—which could be a great deal for students fluent in the country's language. And for a deal that's closer to home, U.S. students may find lower rates at Canadian institutions, too.
Going to college in a foreign country wasn't an option Elliott Bent initially considered while in high school in Vermont, but at the urging of his father, he looked at relatively inexpensive colleges in Canada, including Nova Scotia's University of King's College. After a visit, Bent realized that attending the Canadian university would not only be "substantially cheaper" in flat tuition costs—the 2006 grad estimates he paid about $8,000 a year—but also carried the added benefit of a favorable exchange rate.
"It's not just the tuition; it's a lot of different things," Bent says, "[including] the exchange rate. Anything I bought was 30 percent off."
Canada, which is also home to top-ranked McGill University (No. 18) and the University of Toronto (No. 19), is an increasingly popular destination for American students hunting for a deal, says CollegeMapper.com's Cerasuolo.
"I really think you're going to see a huge rise of Americans looking at Canadian universities in the coming years with the increasing costs in the United States," she says.
[Find out how to pay for college in the United States.]
To further offset costs, students may be able to receive scholarships to attend foreign institutions. All incoming first year students at McGill University, for instance, are automatically considered for $3,000 scholarships (in Canadian dollars); at Sweden's Lund University, ranked 71st, students from countries outside of the European Union/European Economic Area may be eligible for merit-based Global Scholarships that could cover 25 to 100 percent of the school's tuition.
For Massachusetts native Sarah Barnacle, a $7,000 scholarship helped make a transfer from the University of Massachusetts—Boston to Richmond, The American University in London feasible without adding much cost.
"At Richmond, semesters were costing me $10,000 ... the education I received was better than that of a state school, and I was in London," Barnacle wrote in an E-mail to U.S. News. "My brother currently attends a private college in Illinois and his tuition is close to $18,000 a semester... [My] education was actually a great deal considering what the average American student pays a year."
Students looking abroad may also be able to use federal student loans from the U.S. government. At foreign institutions including UCL (University College London), No. 4 in the 2012 World's Best Universities rankings; the University of Hong Kong, No. 23; and Denmark's University of Copenhagen, No. 51, U.S. students who fill out the FAFSA can borrow federal Stafford loans to help pay for their degrees.
Evaluating global options takes time and energy—not just for finances, but for long-term plans as well, University of King's College graduate Bent notes.
"If you're going to study outside of the U.S., you really need to assess what your future plans are very early on in the process," Bent says. "When you come back, you won't have the same network that you would if you went to a state school. When you're studying in Washington, D.C. or New York City, you come out of school and you've got people that you've met over the course of your studies that will help you in the job market. That's less true if you study abroad and then come back."
Studying abroad for an entire degree also has other implications, including homesickness, notes Eddie LaMeire, an independent college counselor based in Madrid.
"This is not something that should be done on a whim," LaMeire says. "If a student had any doubt about how she'd adjust to a new culture, what she'd study, or how she would use the degree, I'd tell her to think twice. It's a specialized path for a particular type of student, which deserves serious thought."
But for Bent, who now has a communications job at KSE Partners LLP in Vermont, the experience was worth the risk.
"It's a true cost-benefit analysis," he says. "If you think that you want to save that money and you want to see the world or how things are different elsewhere, then you should go abroad, save the money, and check things out."
See U.S. News's coverage of the World's Best Universities for rankings, photos, and more.