Expat Essentials

Expat Essentials: (Updated) College tuition in Europe is affordable … maybe even free

Word is starting to filter out to Americans, who are piling up unsustainable amounts of college debt, that you can –  in some circumstances – go to university tuition-free in Europe.

We know going to school in the EU has less-than-universal appeal for most Americans who identify not so much with their university as they do Big U. sports programs. (Oddly, the best universities in the United States such as MIT and the University of Chicago either don’t have varsity, or have bare-bones sports programs a la the Ivys.)

For us, it’s perfect.

The appeal of sending our daughter Lucy to college in Europe is two-fold:

Lucy studies frantically for the entrance exam she didn't think she'd ever have to take.

Lucy studies frantically for the Tilburg University entrance exam she didn’t think she’d ever have to take.

First, we knew we might end up avoiding paying tens of thousands of dollars for an American public school degree of suspect value.

Second, we can’t think of anything that will make Lucy even more global than she already is (she grew up in Turkey and Germany) than sending her to school in Europe.

She’d been attending Eastern Kentucky University, a great little school for what it is and where it is … in a state not exactly synonymous with educational achievement. But, we’re planning our move to the Netherlands. So we started looking at the possibilities.

The first thing we wanted to know is, can Lucy really go to university in Europe for free? And the answer is, “Yes, in seven countries including Germany, Sweden and Finland.

We started with Germany because it borders the Netherlands.

We looked at the University of Freiburg, one of the oldest institutions in Europe. Freiburg tuition is 250 euros per year compared to the $8,150 per year in tuition alone Lucy pays at EKU, less her scholarships.

Lucy paid $4,400 per year for her dorm, and about $3,000 per year for food for a grand total of $15,400, laughably inexpensive in U.S. terms, where tuition and expenses at top schools such as Stanford University run about $60,000 per year.

So, yes, Freiburg looks pretty darn good, assuming living expenses are comparable, and classes are in English.

The snag we hit was that Lucy would have had to pretty much start her college career over again.

Here are the requirements:

• If your child has an International Baccalaureate diploma from an American school, you’re in!

• If an American student comes out of high school with 5s on their Advanced Placement class exams – the top score – German schools waive the prep requirements.

• If those don’t apply, German registrars look at the same stuff American colleges look at including a student’s high school diploma and cumulative grade point average. You have to send German university schools an officially certified copy of your higher education entrance qualification. If they determine the diploma is the equivalent of a German diploma, you can apply for a full degree program. If your high school diploma isn’t equivalent, you must take the 1-year at Studienkolleg in Heidelberg, then pass an exam.

• To avoid taking a 1-year prep course in Germany, non-EU college students must have one year of academic study and at least five general education classes such as science and mathematics. Three of the five classes have to be progressive. That is, you need Algebra 101 and Algebra 102 or Chemistry 201 and Chemistry 202.

If they admit your student after all this, yes, you can go to Freiburg for 250 euros per year. Lucy doesn’t qualify, which means she would have had to remain in the American system for at least another academic year.

If she didn’t have those things, she’d have to take that full calendar year preparatory course. Oh, and by the way, that prep course is taught in German, which Lucy doesn’t speak.

There certainly are German-speaking American students who could slide right out of their sophomore years and into a German university, no problem. Lucy ain’t one of ’em, despite living four years in Deutschland.

So, we dropped the German option and went to Plan B. Which at the time was the University of Amsterdam, where they charge 11,745 euros in tuition for non-EU residents. The total for tuition, housing, books, food and student visa is about 21,000 euros, about what it would cost to go to Eastern Kentucky if you don’t deduct Lucy’s U.S. scholarships.

Then, my wife Cheryl discovered Tilburg University, which is 35 kilometers (22 miles) from our HQ of Eindhoven. Tilburg tuition is 8,300 euros per year for non-EU students. A studio apartment in the new university housing complex would be about 5,500 euros per year. So, expenses are comparable to EKU. But instead of a rural Kentucky college – as good as it is – she gets the the No. 1 Liberal Arts and Science program in the Netherlands, ranked by Elsevier in 2015, and No. 7 in Europe, with a top economics program.

During her 2015 holiday break, she had to write a motivation letter and an essay on a social issues (an argument for gun control in the U.S.), then forwarded her high school transcripts, her EKU transcripts and, of course, a copy of her passport. At the same time, she applied for a scholarship.

Two weeks after applying, Lucy did a Skype interview with two Tilburg admissions personnel. Thirty minutes after that interview, they notified her she was in. About two months after that, Tilburg awarded her a scholarship equal to 50 percent of her tuition … for her entire 3-year bachelor’s program! So, Lucy is now going to school for half of our part of the EKU tuition!

For us, a big selling point for Tilburg is it’s close enough for Lucy to commute (51 minutes by train), and she might be able to save housing costs.

So is it really practical for American expats to send their kids to school in Europe?

Absolutely. It’s not easy, but it can save you significant money if your kid is properly prepared out of high school with AP classes and a high GPA.

Here’s more information:

• BBC: How US students get a university degree for free in Germany

Fun fact: More than 4,600 US students are fully enrolled at Germany universities, an increase of 20% over three years. At the same time, the total student debt in the US has reached $1.3 trillion (£850 billion).

Here’s the link to the German Academic Exchange Service.


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Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.

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