For U.S. Grad Students, Overseas Schools Beckon

With the bulk of college graduates leaving school with debt, many may be reluctant to consider more schooling, even as a graduate degree is becoming increasingly valuable in the job market.

Here’s one thing these students might consider: Leave the country.

Foreign universities are increasing their offerings of English-language graduate-school programs, often at costs far below what students will pay in the U.S. Some countries, such as Ireland, are even trying to lure American graduate students with promises of free degrees.

The courses are cheaper in part because they’re often shorter than in the U.S. In addition, many of the foreign graduate programs are heavily subsidized by the government in the host country.

The result is a hefty influx of U.S. students abroad. In 2015, over 47,400 U.S. students were pursuing full degrees abroad, according to estimates from the Institute of International Education, a nonprofit focused on international education. That’s up from an estimated 42,000 in 2011.

Before jumping at the chance to save money and broaden their cultural horizons, U.S. students should make sure to answer some basic questions. Among them:

What do you want to do after graduating?

Before choosing to attend grad school in another country, students should do some critical thinking about exactly what they want out of their degree and whether a school in a foreign country will help them get it and with less debt, says Mitch Gordon, the CEO of, a site that helps people find and book travel and educational programs.

Mr. Gordon also suggests students ask university officials specific questions about student outcomes, such as job-placement rates in a given field. He also says students should connect with alumni a few years removed from their degree to see how they’ve fared.

Pursuing a graduate degree abroad can be a great option for many students, Mr. Gordon says, but “if they know they want to work in the United States, or that they might want to be in a particular niche, they may want to think twice depending on what university they’re going to.”

There are some fields where pursuing a degree in another country may actually be an advantage, provided the school has a solid reputation, says Anna Ivey, a former dean of admissions at University of Chicago Law School who runs an admissions consulting company that works with applicants to undergraduate and graduate schools. “A classic example would be an M.B.A. degree, which is truly international,” says Ms. Ivey. “That world is very flat.”

The savings can be substantial for M.B.A. students, according to data provided by a sampling of schools to the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, an international network of business educators and students. According to that data, the total average tuition for a full-time M.B.A. at a U.S. public university is $37,546; for out-of-state students, the average cost is $50,219. The cost of an M.B.A. at a private U.S. university is $62,884 on average, the association’s data show. By comparison, the association’s data show that in the European Union, the average cost of an M.B.A. for a foreign student at a public business school is $37,110, and $45,664 for a private school.

Students pursuing degrees in international relations, political science or area studies—a degree focused on a specific region—may also benefit from the diverse environment at a foreign school, says Jennifer Viemont, the founder of Beyond the States, a website that provides information on accredited degree programs in continental Europe. “You’re dialoguing with people from all different perspectives.”

Will a degree or license from a foreign university let you work in the U.S.?

Ms. Viemont recently added data to her site on English-language programs in Europe where U.S. students can pursue a combined bachelor’s and graduate health-sciences degree. For some fields like pharmacy or veterinary medicine, students can potentially save $40,000 or more, according to Ms. Viemont’s review of several European programs, and face relatively few obstacles getting licensed in the U.S.

But aspiring doctors and dentists may have a tougher (and more expensive) time translating their degrees. Before practicing in the U.S., dentists with a foreign degree typically have to attend a two- or three-year program at a U.S. dental school, which can cost more than $100,000, including living expenses.

For doctors, being able to practice in the U.S. requires passing a series of medical licensing exams and participating in an American residency program. While it’s possible to secure a residency in the U.S. as a graduate of a foreign medical school, it’s typically tougher than with a degree from an American medical school. The schools also usually don’t prepare students to take the U.S. licensing test, which can be a heavy lift to study for, Ms. Viemont says.

For law students, the ability to practice as a lawyer with a foreign degree varies by state. There are some jurisdictions where graduates of foreign law schools can sit for the bar examination, but in most cases they have to complete additional requirements, which may include more education at a school accredited by the American Bar Association.

Rajika Bhandari, deputy vice president of research and evaluation at the Institute of International Education, says applicants should contact the professional association for the career they’re hoping to pursue. Typically, they’ll be able to point applicants to a directory of institutions with degrees that are recognized in the U.S.

Did you consider the school’s reputation?

Students hoping to use a foreign graduate degree to get a job in the U.S. need to be sure that U.S. employers recognize the credential, Ms. Bhandari says. Otherwise it’s just an expensive piece of paper.

Among the questions she says students should ask: Does it have a large international student body and faculty? Does it have global partnerships? Even within that country, is it a reputable institution?

Even if the school meets all of those criteria, students may still struggle to translate their degree into a job offer in the U.S., says Brian Taylor, the managing director at Ivy Coach, an admissions counseling company. “We don’t recommend students to apply to these schools because in most cases they’re going to return, and their employers aren’t going to have heard of these schools,” he says. That can be true even if the student got a good education and the school has some prestige abroad, he adds. “You shouldn’t have to make your case for why your school is good. That means you’re already on the defensive.”

Students may also have to make more of an effort to find career opportunities, Ms. Bhandari says. Foreign graduate schools typically have fewer amenities than in the U.S., she says, and that may extend to career counseling.

Did you really do the math?

When comparing the cost of pursuing a degree abroad to the price of one in the U.S., students need to look beyond the tuition price tag, according to Ms. Bhandari. Among other costs: student-visa fees and the cost of travel back home. Living expenses may also be higher in a European city than in a U.S. college town.

Another consideration: Student visas may prohibit students from working while abroad, cutting off a potential source of income to stave off debt. “Those are all costs that should be accounted for,” Ms. Bhandari says.

Ms. Berman is a reporter at MarketWatch in New York.


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