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Getting a Degree Overseas: An Option Worth Considering?


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Globally minded students may find going abroad for a university degree an attractive alternative to the U.S. These FAQs are intended to help guide that decision.

BY REBECCA GRAPPO


Vector Juice / shutterstock.com

Foreign Service students grow up living among diverse cultures, customs and languages. So, we can hardly be surprised when some of them express a desire to study abroad for their university degrees. These globally minded students see the world as their oyster and want to continue to study with students from around the world, travel and build a résumé that includes relevant professional experience abroad. In sum, they are seeking to create a very internationally focused future for themselves.

The good news is that many universities around the world are eager to welcome students from other countries. In fact, BBC News recently reported that U.K. universities have seen a 50 percent increase in U.S. students post-Brexit, evidence of successful initiatives British universities have conducted in the last few years to recruit international students.

While many Foreign Service young people have honed their foreign language skills, it’s also good to know that, more than ever before, universities throughout Europe are offering courses and degrees in almost every subject with English as the language of instruction. This offering puts other European university programs on the table, so that English speakers have these in addition to the predictable U.K. and Irish options. What follows is an overview of the opportunities available overseas through responses to frequently asked questions.

What are the various options available to American students?

The most obvious choice might be study in a U.K. or Irish university, either private or public. Throughout Europe, however, there are private and public universities that also offer degrees using English-language instruction. For example, “with over 400 bachelor programs taught in English and over 1,300 master programs, the Netherlands is an excellent destination for students looking to study abroad,” says Dr. Kim Zwitserloot, who is responsible for international student recruitment at University College Utrecht. “The diplomas are globally recognized, and the universities place high in many different rankings.”

Popular Dutch programs include the liberal arts colleges, but options are not limited to these degrees. Students can complete a STEM degree completely in English at several universities there. Outside the Netherlands, the Carl Benz School of Engineering at Karlsruhe University in Germany or the Czech Technical University in Prague are but two among the other options that exist for English speakers in Europe.

Admissions requirements can vary by program or course of study (degree) and need to be researched university by university.

Some European, U.K. and Irish universities offer dual degree programs in partnership with American universities. For example, the prestigious French university, the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences-Po), partners with more than 80 U.S. universities, including Columbia, Johns Hopkins, Northwestern and the University of California system.

The University of St. Andrews in Scotland is another example; it has a partnership with the College of William and Mary. And Trinity College Dublin now offers a dual bachelor’s program through its partnership with Columbia University.

American universities throughout the U.K., Ireland and Europe also feature an American approach to education with four-year degree programs. These universities are regionally accredited in the U.S., nonprofit and operate on U.S. academic credit systems.

How do I find out more, and how does the application process differ from the American system?

If a student is interested in studying abroad, be prepared to spend more time researching the basics and organizing information independently. Admissions requirements can vary by program or course of study (degree) and need to be researched university by university. UCAS (the University College and Admissions Service) has a great tool for researching programs through its website (www.ucas.com). The Netherlandsalso has an excellent site at www.studyfinder.nl.

Some universities are found on the American application platform, the Common Application, which makes it easy to add another university to the application list. If students depend on finding a university using that only, however, they will miss out on a substantial number of opportunities.

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British and Scottish universities use UCAS, a centralized system that allows students to apply to up to five universities. The Irish universities have their own unique application, the CAO (Centralized Application Office, found at www.cao.ie), as do many other universities.

If the chosen university is accredited by its national Ministry of Education, students can feel confident that their degree will be recognized in the U.S. for employment.

Generally, the most important elements that universities abroad look for are the high school transcript, grades, personal statement, perhaps a letter of reference (recommendation) and standardized testing (look on each website to confirm what is needed for each major and course).

Extracurricular activities in many foreign universities are not scrutinized as closely as in the U.S., yet some private universities in Europe clearly state that they look for meaningful engagement and examples of leadership during the student’s high school years.

Regarding the timeline for applications, universities will publish the date their applications open and close, and the expected time it takes to render a decision. Applications open and close at different times of the year, too.

Because it takes extra diligence to research and organize all the options, it’s important and a wise strategy to start earlier than the action date the applications open.

What about testing in a test-optional world?

Additional Resources

Here are some additional resources that will help students and families explore some of the English-instruction degree options available.

StudieLink — This is the application system for Dutch universities.

Dutch Research University Consortium — Information about study options and systems in the Netherlands.

Study in Holland — Website with links to resources related to studying in the Netherlands.

Education in Ireland — About education in Ireland, with application.

UCAS, University and College Admissions Service — Information about how to choose courses of study in the U.K., as well as links to the actual application.

Study UK — Information related to studying in the U.K.

European Universities Consortium — A group of European universities that offers degrees taught in English and wishes to recruit international students.

Study in Sweden — For students exploring options in Sweden.

American Universities Abroad — A group of American universities abroad that promotes study at their member institutions.

Common App — Designed mostly for American universities in the United States, this application tool has a growing number of international member institutions.

Since the United States does not have a national curriculum with leaving, or exit, exams, it’s more difficult for foreign universities to understand the various experiences and opportunities that American students have had. Therefore, students on track to receive a standard American high school diploma need to demonstrate some commonly accepted level of competence in certain subject areas. The SAT and ACT are relevant in these situations.

Universities abroad tend to be very specific, however, about the required scores to meet the standard for different programs at their institutions. Related to that is the need for students to show AP exam results in certain subjects, depending on their field of chosen study. International Baccalaureate Diploma Program students may often use their IB grades, predicted grades or diploma in place of standardized testing.

Always read the website carefully to see if the institution is “test flexible.” Also, though many university admissions officers are aware of the difficulty students may have had doing testing during the COVID-19 era, some may be required by their Ministries of Education to have a qualifications-based admission process.

How are degrees earned overseas alike or different from a bachelor’s in the U.S.?

If the chosen university is accredited by its national Ministry of Education, students can feel confident that their degree will be recognized in the U.S. for employment, as well as in application for graduate study.

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Once again, however, it’s important to do one’s homework. Degrees offered in England, Wales, Ireland and other European countries are usually three-year degrees, while those offered in Scotland are earned in four years. American universities in Europe offer four-year degrees.

Why is this important? For those students who know what they want to study, a three-year degree offers a more streamlined path to graduation, and students might study a subject in greater depth as an undergraduate. That commitment to their field of interest must be demonstrated in their personal statement.

Many students, however, are not clear about what they want to study and therefore may want to explore several topics. In those situations, the four-year degree might be a better choice so that they have more time before making a commitment, especially since changing a course of study (or what is referred to as a “major” in the U.S.) is difficult. Check also to confirm that the university of choice offers an “undeclared” option.

Further, professions that require licensure or certification might be problematic, since the credential would be earned abroad whereas in the United States, licensure is always local. Always investigate before pursuing degrees in such areas as teaching, psychology, medicine, dentistry and veterinary medicine. That said, an undergraduate law degree earned in the U.K. could streamline the path to a law degree through a one-year Master of Laws program followed by the bar exam in the U.S., potentially saving years of study and tuition dollars.

Let’s talk money…

Given the cost today of higher education in the U.S., many students consider studying overseas to save money. Overall, the cost may be equivalent to attending an out-of-state university in the U.S. What families should consider, however, is the additional travel expenses and student housing if searching options on the local market. For example, London or Paris are exciting places to study, but housing and living expenses would clearly drive up the cost of attendance.

There is good news, however. Federal student aid programs, except Pell Grants, can be used at accredited programs overseas. There are 529 plans that can also be used abroad. Many universities offer full or partial merit-based scholarships, and some have set aside scholarships and even no-interest loans just for international students. Each university website will have specific information for international students.

International students are also usually allowed to work while in country, sometimes as much as 20 hours per week. Once again, verify with the individual university and country before creating a budget, as laws and regulations can be subject to change.

Where do students live, work and eat?

Most universities that want to attract international students will guarantee housing, or accommodations, for first-year students. But that is not a given, and students are often expected to find their own housing on the local market and commute to school. Students attending a university in an urban setting can often expect to find more affordable housing farther away from their centrally located campus. So, once they leave for the day, they should not expect to return to their accommodation between classes. Yet other universities do offer dormitories with single rooms and kitchens on each floor, and some are even located on green, leafy campuses like many in the U.S.

Given the cost today of higher education in the U.S., many students consider studying overseas to save money.

Meal plans, or catering, are also variable, with some universities offering robust plans and others expecting students to be almost completely independent. As Dr. Zwitserloot explains, “Dutch universities do not usually offer housing, however, and students are expected to be independent and proactive. That’s something to keep in mind before you go Dutch.”

In short, where students will eat, live, study and play are all important factors to their well-being and success. Self-awareness and awareness of the situation are critical issues to consider when investigating options.

Is it possible to study abroad while studying abroad?

Some might think that students will be excited enough to study abroad and, therefore, would not want to seek a study abroad experience from a foreign university. Many students who are drawn to these kinds of experiences want even more though—and they can find them through the Erasmus programs, which allow for study abroad throughout the European Union. As a result of Brexit, however, U.K. universities no longer participate in this program and are in the process of negotiating various bilateral agreements.

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Many universities throughout Ireland, the U.K. and Europe also offer exchange programs at other universities, including American universities, and for the same tuition that the student is paying the overseas university. One example would be Bocconi University in Milan and its exchange program with Yale University. Though prestigious and enticing, it also has competitive requirements that students need to investigate.

What about career services, internships and work permits?

Many universities are proud of their theory-focused instruction complemented by real-world practical experience outside the classroom. Career service offices are committed to helping students find relevant internships, often referred to as a “sandwich year” in the U.K. That may even include internships at American companies, which often have offices overseas. Universities are also extremely proud of their alumni networks with a global reach, which can potentially open other labor markets to graduates.

In most situations, students are also allowed to stay on and work post-graduation for up to two years. For those wishing for permanent residency, this might give them the opportunity to become established with an employer who will sponsor them with a longer-term work visa.

What about “fit,” DEIA and support?

“Fit” is a concept that is often discussed when looking at American universities, and perhaps is not considered as frequently by international students more driven by the course of study they want, where it is offered and if they meet admissions requirements. But I would suggest that fit is still an extremely important concept when considering studying overseas far from home.

Students should consider whether they want urban, rural or in-between; large, medium or small; research-based or experiential; and a setting in which they would feel comfortable and at home. Weather should also be considered if the student is at all affected by longer, colder, rainy winters.

Students who successfully navigate the accompanying challenges usually possess a high degree of independence and tolerance for ambiguity.

I would also recommend that students and families assess the percentage of other international students and other Americans in the student body. What is important to one student may not be to another. The issue of diversity, equity and inclusion has also come up frequently for students who want to find a campus where they will feel accepted and safe. What policies are in place, and what initiatives have been undertaken?

For students wishing to access learning support services, it’s important to understand what level of support can be expected and how accommodations are implemented and respected by various faculty members. Mental health services are a hot topic around the world now, but how accessible is campus support?

Studying abroad as an international student can be thrilling and life-changing. Students who successfully navigate the accompanying challenges usually possess a high degree of independence and tolerance for ambiguity, are skilled at problem-solving and eager to experience different cultures.

Before embarking on this adventure, do the research, know what lies ahead, and then be ready to embrace and enjoy the journey!

Rebecca Grappo, M.Ed., and founder of RNG International Educational Consultants, LLC, is an expert on U.S. as well as international college advising and knows the Foreign Service lifestyle intimately, having lived it herself for more than 27 years. Rebecca is the mother of three adult Foreign Service TCKs who also see the world as their oyster.

 

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