Laura Smith

Master's Candidate at New York University

The Cost-Conscious Case for Taking Your Grad Studies Abroad

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When I was deep in the throes of my graduate-school search, debating the merits of several competing journalism programs, I met a woman who urged me to apply to a similar, less-expensive option. There was just one catch: The program was in Beijing.

I nodded, smiled, and promptly forgot her advice.

But last month, as I wrote about financial advice for graduate students, I thought of that woman again. Had I made a mistake by not considering schools abroad?

When I worked for Pearson, the multinational publishing conglomerate, I came across “An Avalanche Is Coming,” a 2013 report arguing that higher ed is failing to meet the demands of the global marketplace. The paper sounded some alarms that you’ve undoubtedly heard before—that in the U.S., student debt is rising; that the cost of a degree is rising just as its value in the marketplace is diminishing. But it adopted hopeful rhetoric about students: “In the 21st century, the student consumer is king,” it said, because students can “shop globally for the best higher education offerings.”

Being a king (or queen) sounded infinitely more appealing than what I actually was in grad school: broke.

So as my husband considers applying to graduate school, I’ve spent some time researching the pros and cons of graduate study abroad. If we’re going to invest in another graduate degree, we want more bang for fewer bucks!

Here’s what I’ve found: Yes, there are many well-regarded programs overseas. And yes, many of them are much cheaper than comparable programs in the United States. The Global Higher Education rankings reported in 2010 that the average annual price tag of U.S. universities was $13,856. while the average cost was $7,692 in Australia, $5,288 in the United Kingdom, $5,274 in Canada, $3,118 in New Zealand, and $585 in France.

While some schools have higher prices for students coming from other countries, universities outside the U.S. are still markedly, sometimes dramatically, cheaper than their American counterparts. This is true even when you factor in travel expenditures and the cost of living—and especially when you consider that many universities in the European Union and other countries offer one-year graduate programs.

Just ask Amelia Hagan. When she began looking for tourism-administration programs so she could pursue work as an event planner, George Washington University’s master’s program routinely popped up in her Google searches, but Hagan was daunted by the roughly $90,000 price tag on the two-year degree. That, along with the high cost of living in D.C., made the program unappealing. At the urging of a friend, she expanded her search to include schools abroad. She is now in a one-year master’s program at the University of Brighton, in Britain, where she estimates her degree will cost her $20,000.

For Kate Newman, the decision to study abroad was a no-brainer. She briefly considered pursuing a master’s in international affairs at Georgetown University, until she calculated that the program would have left her with five-figure debt. Instead she applied to Australian National University, attended on a full scholarship, and never looked back.

Of course, it’s not always that simple—not even close. Is overseas study a good deal for you? Here are a few steps to take to reach an answer:

Look past tuition.

Saad Rizvi, one of the authors of the “Avalanche” paper and a senior vice president at Pearson, says American students need to consider much more than just sticker price. While international schools tend to be cheaper, schools in the U.S. have larger endowments and often more opportunities for fellowships, especially for Ph.D. students. “U.S. universities are some of the best-funded out there,” Rizvi says.

Additionally, most federal and state governments, along with private charities, don’t offer scholarships and grants for international study (though many students can still receive Stafford loans).

Explore emerging markets.

For those still interested in looking for fellowship money abroad, Rizvi suggests investigating emerging markets like Singapore, China, and Malaysia. “They have booming economies,” he says, “and they want to build their education systems to last.” The National University of Singapore, for example, has many research opportunities; in fact, Rizvi notes, it’ll even foot the bill for students who promise to work for the Singaporean government or a company registered in Singapore for three years after they graduate.

Be smart (but open-minded) about quality.

Paying less for a degree sounds great, but are these schools offering a comparable education? For some students, the answer will certainly be “yes.” Amelia Hagan tells me that she finds the course offerings and curricula in Britain surpass those in the States: “The course I'm doing here,” she says, “is much more specific than the GWU one would have been.”

There’s a tendency among American students to think that only the schools we’ve heard of are good, but The Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings top-50 list is filled with universities outside the United States. On the other hand, while the National University of Singapore is No. 26 in those rankings, an employer in the U.S. might still be skeptical of a degree from a university they’ve never heard of.

There are ways to combat this. One suggestion, from a 2010 U.S. News article by Amanda Ruggeri: “Frame the university for the hiring manager.” In other words, be prepared to explain why your decision to study abroad was more than just a cost-saving measure; it should advance your own intellectual and professional goals, too. And if you have to explain that the institution’s a good one, explain away. It’s a fine idea to “state the school's ranking or acceptance rate high on the résumé,” Ruggeri writes.

Know your field.

Do the skills acquired abroad translate into jobs back in the States? In a lot of cases, sure. Rizvi points out that there are benefits to an international degree: “Many companies are now having to work across multinational themes and collaborating across time zones. It is becoming increasingly important to have a global perspective,” he says.

In a number of fields, he adds, global experience is “a necessary step to progress to senior positions”—so studying abroad can be an asset that “gives people an edge.”

That said, this logic doesn’t apply across the board. Studying abroad made sense for Kate Newman, because her degree is in international relations. But there are still plenty of degrees that require expertise better obtained on this side of the pond. For instance, if you plan to practice law exclusively in the U.S., it’s certainly better to stay stateside.

One more thing to consider: As foreign universities become increasingly specialized, they’re working harder “to establish credibility within certain fields,” says Rizvi. For example, Queen Mary University, in London, has made a concerted effort to become a premier program for the study of British history. So if you’re looking for a very specialized program, there may be a school abroad that’s esteemed for its role in that niche.

Search for alliances.

Rizvi also points out that the employment climate is changing. People simply aren’t staying in their jobs for as long as they used to. So increasingly, he says, employers care less about the “brand” of your degree than the actual skills you can demonstrate right off the bat.

So when you’re looking abroad for a graduate program, it’s important to consider how closely that program is allied with employers. “Some universities really take pride in creating practical connections with employers,” Rizvi says, “so you graduate with great knowledge but also with a portfolio” of work experience when you come back to the States.

Think about where you’ll be comfortable.

I’m saving this one for last because it should almost go without saying: When you’re deciding whether to study abroad, you’ll want to consider much more than cost and quality. By all means, you should research daily life in the countries where you’re thinking about studying. You should make sure to find out what programs the institutions you’re considering have in place to support international students.

And you should get a read on how many foreign students there are at those universities: A robust international student body could make acclimating easier.

In the end, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer on whether to attend grad school abroad. In my case, it’s tough to say if I made the right choice by sticking stateside. There’s a temptation to reinforce the decisions we’ve already made, but I’m happy with my program.

One thing I can say for sure, though, is that if and when my husband applies to graduate school, we’ll be broadening the boundaries of our search. If you’re at all open to living overseas, restricting your search to the States no longer makes a great deal of sense.

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