Study Abroad: Where To Go For A Free University Degree

Want to get your Bachelor’s degree but don’t know how to pay for it? Avoid massive student loan debt by studying in one of these countries.
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Study Abroad: Where To Go For A Free University Degree

Illustrated by Chaim Garcia

If you live in the UK or the US and plan to study at a university, you have some big decisions to make, and they’re not limited to, “Which career path should I pursue?” and “Which school is right for me?” The main one will probably be, “How much student debt am I willing to take on?”

It wasn’t always like this. Prior to 1980, students in the UK were expected to shell out no more than £380, in the form of a student grant. Over the following two decades, successive Thatcher and Blair governments slowly upped the maximum to its current level of £9,000 per year. This is a significant increase, especially for those considering a liberal arts education.

But that’s nothing compared to the US. According to College Data’s most recent numbers, the average “moderate” budget for an in-state public college is $24,061 per year; private colleges average $47,831. Since 1985, college education costs have risen over 500%. Needless to say, this is prohibitive for many prospective students, especially with the worryingly low graduate employment rates. An entire generation of students is coming out of the system with crippling six-figure student loans.

So, to quote Coco Chanel, “Don’t spend time beating on a wall, hoping to transform it into a door.” If you’re concerned about accruing massive student loans — and, unless you’re in a very privileged position, you should be — why not study abroad?

Studying in another country is a way to avoid huge debts, increase your value to potential employers, enjoy a higher quality of life as a student, and experience a foreign culture. In an era of skyrocketing fees, this is an increasingly attractive option for those who want the education without the financial burden.

Germany, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Austria all offer free tertiary education. France is not free, but by US standards it might as well be, and it has a host of schemes such as au pair work or English teaching, to help overseas students meet French living expenses.

Some Master’s programs and an increasing number of undergraduate courses (like the “International Studies” programs) are in English, but most require you to speak some of the local language. Most universities call for a B1 or B2 standard, which is about an intermediate level. This means you can accomplish most basic tasks and have simple conversations, but you’re not expected to be able to develop complex arguments. Many countries have bridging courses available to help students get ready for the language demands of university.


Interest in studying abroad in Germany continues to rise, and it’s no wonder. From October 2014, there were no longer any student fees or tuition costs for either local or international students. Increasingly seen as a leader on the world stage, Germany is Europe’s largest economy and a hub of engineering and technological development with lots of jobs. Their Ausbildung system, a form of traineeship where you study and work in a company which pays your expenses, is well worth investigating. German is not the easiest language to learn, but it opens many doors. The cities are affordable and lively, the standard of living is high, and there are great discounts for students. And don’t forget Austria, which offers many of the same advantages.


The Scandinavian nations also present terrific opportunities for study. A Bachelor’s degree in Norway will cost you nothing, even as an international student; and although the cost of living is high in the country, financial aid for living expenses is easy to come by. Swedish and Danish universities are free for European citizens — indeed, if you’re Danish, the government effectively pays you to go to university. Finland, world-renowned for its education system, is completely gratis, although nominal fees for international students will take effect in 2017.


France is also a good option. Public university fees are a mere €180, although the ivy-league equivalents, the grandes écoles, can be considerably more. If the cost of living in Paris is too high, don’t be deterred: the best four student cities are actually Nantes, Montpellier, Toulouse and Grenoble, according to student magazine É

One last word, for those of you who are open to the adventure of studying abroad, but are unsure of whether you can study in French, German or Norwegian. There’s no better way to learn a language than to dive into it: to live in it, learn in it, soak it up. When you are surrounded by a language, you will be able to speak it faster than you might think. And if you start learning it now, you’ll give yourself a head-start before arriving.

You’re probably at a stage of life where this is a viable option for you. Studying abroad is an adventure that’s harder to embark on after you’ve settled down. So why not go for it now? You might just come out of it with a new language, a few new perspectives on life, a very well regarded university degree — and no student loans hanging around your neck.

Illustrations by Chaim Garcia

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