Graduate School: Smart Solutions

Today’s employment market increasingly demands that young professionals acquire graduate degrees to be competitive job applicants. But the costs of graduate degrees are rising, and with the average amount of student loan debt after undergraduate studies reaching an astonishing $30,000 as of 2014, according to U.S. News. It is becoming increasingly difficult for young professionals to rationalize the expense of graduate school. Thus arises the catch-22 of higher education: one needs a graduate degree to earn more money, but one needs more money to pay for a graduate degree. An increasing number of students have found a solution to this conundrum: graduate degree programs at universities outside of the United States.

The Bologna Declaration of 1999 created a European Higher Education Area, which standardized multiple important aspects of higher education across the 50 member countries. The implementation of a system of three “cycles” of higher education – bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees – that closely matched the American education system majorly affected American students’ ability to study in Europe. Since this change, an increasing number of American students have sought graduate degrees overseas, and foreign universities have responded in kind by increasing their supply of programs instructed in English: between 2007 and 2011, the total number of English-instruction master’s programs in European countries where English is not the primary language more than quadrupled, according to the Center for Academic Mobility Research.

That said, attending English-instruction graduate programs outside of the United States has several consequences. Graduate school can be an important time for students to establish networks and search for employment. Completing a graduate degree abroad means that the majority of a student’s graduate network and contacts will be in the region of their chosen university. In addition, American students are usually charged significantly higher tuition than citizens of that country or of countries in the European Union. An influx of American graduate students therefore provides a corresponding increase in income that far surpasses what citizen students would provide. This can lead to a beneficial cycle of using American tuition to improve programs to attract more Americans and thus more tuition money, which can improve the university’s ranking in that country and in the world.

A university’s ranking can be an important factor in American students’ decisions regarding graduate programs, as employers’ perception of the quality of the degree can affect employment options. But American universities are by no means universally and decisively the best in the world. In US News and World Report’s 2016 list of the best universities in the world, 15 of the top 50 academic institutions were located outside the United States, according to U.S. News. Furthermore, as documented in the QS World University Rankings, overseas universities often rank above American universities in specific academic fields. Cambridge and Oxford are ranked above American schools for graduate studies in English language and literature, and seven of the top ten universities for graduate studies in civil and structural engineering are located in countries other than the United States. Depending on the area of study, a foreign university can offer a higher quality education than an American counterpart – for a fraction of the price.

Universities outside the United States ranked among the top 50 universities in the world in 2016 (US News and World Report)

  • Cambridge University England
  • Oxford University England
  • Imperial College London England
  • University College London England
  • Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich Switzerland
  • University of Tokyo Japan
  • University of British Columbia Canada
  • Heidelberg University Germany
  • University of Edinburgh Scotland
  • University of Melbourne Australia
  • Peking University China
  • KU Leuven Germany
  • National University of Singapore Singapore
  • Pierre and Marie Curie University France

In the United States, tuition fees for graduate degrees vary widely depending on a number of factors. A basic master of arts at a public university can cost as little as $10,000 per year, while medical degrees and Ph.D.’s at private institutions can cost more than $60,000 or more each year. Considering that American master’s degrees require two to three years of study, and Ph.D.’s four to five, graduate school is a sizeable investment that can match or exceed the costs involved in the prerequisite undergraduate degree. In contrast, European and Australian master’s degrees generally only require one or two years of study, and Ph.D.’s only three or four. Annual foreign tuitions vary among countries depending on the degree and the amount of government subsidization, but fees can range from $286 for a master’s in France to $54,000 for a medical degree in Singapore (using October 2016 conversion rates; see below). These reduced tuition rates, in conjunction with the reduced amount of time required for foreign degrees, make graduate degrees much more financially reasonable for many Americans.

Tuition Costs at Universities Outside of the United States

Name Location Tuition Range (USD)
Freie Universitat Berlin Germany $290
Université Paris-Sud 11 France $290 – $440
Universidad Autonoma de Madrid Spain $1,500 – $4,500
University of Copenhagen Denmark $10,000 – $20,000
University of Amsterdam Netherlands $11,300 – $28,200
University of Melbourne Australia $28,000
St. Andrews University Scotland $24,400 – $30,500
University College London England $27,500 – $39,000
National University of Singapore Singapore

$12,000 – $54,000

An important aspect of this story that often goes unconsidered is that higher education is an industry. Universities and are businesses, professors are employees, students are clients, and standardized tests and classes are a product. A student who leaves the United States for graduate studies spends anywhere between one and six years in that country for studies alone, and is more likely than an American-educated counterpart to continue working and living abroad simply because they are more familiar with the process. During that time, those American students are active clients of foreign university businesses – which equates to a direct loss of business for American university businesses. For those one to six years, Americans fuel foreign businesses and a foreign economy, and increase their likelihood of staying abroad and becoming an active participant in that foreign workforce. An increase in students seeking educational opportunities outside of their home country should give governments a reason for concern, and indicates that a change in the industry may be necessary to increase retention rates within that country.

A recent survey revealed that 35 percent of American-born residents and 55 percent of residents between the ages of 18 and 34 would leave the United States to live and work in another country (Whitten). More concretely, data from the United States Treasury Department reveals that while between 1998 and 2009 the annual number of published expatriates (Americans who chose to officially renounce their citizenship) remained well below 1,000 and often below 500, in 2010 the number rose to over 1,500 and continued on a mostly steady climb to over 3,400 in 2014 (Whitten). Most recently, in the first three months of 2015 a record 1,335 Americans renounced citizenship (Yan). This number is more than 40 percent of the total number of Americans who expatriated in 2014, indicating that by the end of the year, the trend of increased expatriation from the United States will likely continue.

Recent upward trends in the number of Americans expatriating and pursuing graduate degrees abroad are not necessarily directly linked; any number of factors could, independently or in combination, drive individuals to make such choices. However, further research into the reasons why people choose to expatriate and students choose to obtain graduate degrees outside the United States could better inform possible connections between the two phenomena and help the United States find ways to keep its young professionals from taking their resources, academic work, and potentially their careers overseas.