After finishing up my exams a few weeks ago, a close friend and I were having a celebratory pint, and discussing how different our lives are now that we both go to university in France. This friend is from Bulgaria, and I asked her why she’d chosen to get her degree abroad. She told me that most students who go to prestigious high schools in Bulgaria go abroad for their studies. They typically go to countries in Western Europe (such as the UK or Germany) or to the United States, despite the fact that it is much cheaper to stay in Bulgaria. The mentality amongst those in well-regarded high schools in Bulgaria is that studying abroad pays off in the end because of the quality and recognition of foreign universities. Most of her friends from high school study outside Bulgaria.
In contrast to my friend, as an American, most of my friends back home were surprised by my choice to get a degree abroad. And most foreigners are equally surprised because the U.S. is home to some of the best universities in the world, and it would make sense to stay closer to home and study there. In the U.S., study abroad is extremely popular, but pursuing a full degree outside the country isn’t — which makes very little sense, seeing as a degree abroad is much cheaper, but study abroad tends to be very expensive. As with most important life decisions, my choice to pursue a degree abroad was a mixture of pragmatism, my personality, my interests, and, of course, a dash of gut feeling.
When I first started researching colleges, leaving the country was not a priority. I didn’t have my heart set on a particular school and went back and forth almost weekly as to where I wanted to apply. The summer after my junior year, everything changed. I participated in a government-funded exchange program to study Russian and live with a host family in Moldova, an ex-Soviet country. I fell in love with the Russian language and gained an interest in post-Soviet culture. I also realized how much I love living abroad. After I came home, I thought a gap year was the right idea for me, even though I had no idea where I would go or what I would do.
Ultimately, the gap year idea lost steam pretty quickly. I didn’t want to go with a program of any sort, and I would have had to fund and plan my year entirely on my own. So I began doing cursory research of other academic programs abroad. I learned about a French school that did a dual-degree program with Columbia University and was immediately intrigued. Almost everything about the French school fit the profile I wanted. It is a top-five school worldwide for political studies, has campuses that each focus on a region of the world (one being Eastern Europe, the specialization I wanted), and classes are in French (which I have studied throughout my life).
Despite the fact that my school fit my academic wants, I would be lying if I said the financial aspect didn’t play a huge role in my decision. The tuition at my school is incredibly cheap compared to most private American universities. At around $10,000 a year (depending on exchange rates), it was less expensive than any American school I applied to (even after merit scholarships and financial aid offered to me). Even in-state tuition at my state’s university was higher. The finances of getting my degree in France ruled out nearly every American university I was accepted to.
Living costs for students are much less expensive than paying for a dorm in the U.S. It isn’t nearly as cheap as living at home, but had I stayed in the country for my studies, I would have lived on-campus. Instead of dealing with the price of room-and-board and a meal plan, I was able to find my own place where I pay a reasonable rent, and I budget the hell out of the rest of my life to spend as little as possible on food, my phone bill, utilities, and other expenses. Additionally, because my father works in the airline industry, my family gets great prices on plane tickets, so travel costs are not a huge issue. (I also am only able to come home once a year.) When you add everything up, my family and I are paying around $20,000-$22,000 a year for my education, and that is including a generous buffer estimate for random expenses that could pop up.
Considering that undergrad only lasts three years here, by the end of my degree, I will end up paying the same amount that some people pay in one year for a private American university. The grand total will be about $60,000, and while that is still a lot of money, it’s still less than what most of my friends pay for college. I have to point out that, though my choice was a money-saver when compared to a private American university, there are less expensive options at many public schools — even if my particular in-state program was not one of those. There are also less-expensive options within France, including public French universities, but the program of this specific school was important to me. So, though I didn’t make the absolute least-expensive choice, it was still a big money saver for my particular case and needs.
Ultimately, I realize that this choice is not ideal for everyone, nor is it even possible for everyone. I am lucky that I speak French, that there are no serious reasons why I need to stay close to home, and that my parents can afford to help me pay for my studies. At the same time, I think the number one piece of advice I would give to someone going through the college process is: don’t be afraid to do something different for your education (if it’s what you want). The college process is filled with what everyone else wants; there’s pressure from your high school, your guidance counselor, your friends, and your parents. If you want to stay home for a year to save money, take a gap year, go to community college, or get technical training, then the sooner you are honest about that, the better you’ll feel.
I have a friend who had the money to leave home and pay for university in full, but she is extremely close to her family, so she decided to go to a smaller, less expensive college and live at home. I also have a friend who felt pressured to go to the best school she got into because that’s what everyone did at my high school, and she will graduate with an inordinate amount of debt. Deciding where to go to university is not an easy decision, but it must be a decision that works for you. For me, I feel confident that getting my degree abroad was the right decision, and I could not be happier with my choice.
Rachel is an 18-year-old political science student from a suburb of Chicago living in Dijon, France. When she is not studying, she likes to cook, read, and write, and hopes to be a journalist or a diplomat one day.
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