Tertiary education is very expensive in the USA, UK, Australia, New Zealand, etc.

On the other hand, on average, tuition fees in the EU are 1/5th the cost of that of the USA.

Why don't students from those countries go to the EU for higher education en masse, and how are their higher education industries keeping themselves competitive?

Why do students in those countries still take educational loans rather than going to the EU?

  • 7
    Why don't all the people in poor countries move to rich countries? Why don't all the people where there's no water move to...? Etc. etc. Feb 22, 2022 at 9:32
  • Dunno, I think people chose to do a Masters at Oxford University for many reasons, and money is the least of them. In many countries, particularly developing ones, but not uniquely, having a masters at Oxford is much more valuable (because of reputation) than anything else. (Oxford is a random example here) Feb 22, 2022 at 14:21
  • 1
    In Scotland, which is part of the UK, university is free.
    – Sean Reid
    Feb 22, 2022 at 14:36

5 Answers 5


Why do people still buy inkjet printers? On paper, there is no real reason why they should; laser printers are much nicer and have a much lower lifetime cost. But people do not make an entirely rational choice: inkjet printers have a lower sticker price and are "a regular printer like everyone else has," so your average consumer just buys one without thinking too carefully about other options.

I suspect the same answer applies to your question. In many cases (not all), a European degree would be just as good as an American one, and a whole lot cheaper. But students are intimidated:

  • Navigating the college admissions bureaucracy is "scary" enough; doing so in another country is a different matter. Keep in mind that the US is huge and isolated; many high school students have never even been to a foreign country.
  • Most people apply to domestic universities, and so there are lots of resources (books, counselors, older friends) who can give advice about applying domestically. Very few people can advise about foreign universities. Yes, it's all there on the internet -- but the average 18-year-old (and their family) will really struggle to figure everything out on their own, and mistakes can be costly.
  • The language is a factor. Some European degree programs are offered in English, but most American students don't know this.
  • There are over 5000 universities in the US alone. Choosing ~5 of these to apply to is a daunting task; many students never even consider expanding the pool even further.

There are also some legitimate concerns:

  • The social aspect. In the US, college has a huge social aspect to it; many people make lasting friendships and memories in college, and perhaps even meet their spouses. Doing this in a foreign culture -- where you probably don't speak the local language -- is much more difficult.
  • Loans. Even if tuition is cheap/free, students will need on the order of $1000/month to cover their living expenses (rent, meals, etc.) -- and this may have to be prepaid to a bank account in order to get a visa. In the US, students and their parents can easily access tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, often at favorable rates. But Americans studying in Europe will have to find other ways to come up with the money, if the parents don't already have it saved.
  • Credentials. US employers rarely see foreign degrees from US citizens, and so they may not be sure how to interpret these credentials.
  • Distance. Again, many 18-year-old Americans have never left the country, and never spent more than a few weeks away from their family. Even moving to college an hour away frequently creates serious challenges in terms of mental health. Moving to a foreign country with a different local language 3000+ miles away is not for everyone. This distance also introduces costs; even a single round-trip plane ticket is expensive.
  • Academic culture. The EU system is a little bit different -- for example, general education classes don't really exist, so students often go in knowing what their major will be. Grades have more to do with high-stakes exams and less to do with participation or effort. Some fields like medicine and law are obviously quite difficult to do abroad.

That said, I suspect these "legitimate concerns" are actually less important than the psychological factors and biases listed above. A rational cost-benefit analysis (the listed potential disadvantages vs. the enormous costs savings + advantages of studying in another culture) would likely predict a far higher incidence of American students studying in the EU than is observed.

  • 6
    Yep, this. About the academic culture, a few years ago I had in one of my classes a bunch of US students (a total of about 15 probably). None of them passed the exam: even though most of them probably came to Italy to have fun rather than study, they were also clearly shocked to discover that they would have had to pass an oral test, and that the test was even public such that other people could listen to their performance. Feb 22, 2022 at 8:20

It's good to be at the top of the university rankings.

US and UK universities dominate the top of all three major university rankings (THE, QS, and ARWU). Students want to study at the top universities (and employers want to hire graduates from the top universities). If students have to pay more to study at these universities, so be it.

Note anglophonic universities that are not at the top of the university rankings have to actively compete for students. If you've attended a university fair in a developing country, you'll have seen it first hand. For example here is a 2018 higher education event by US universities in Malaysia. Note one of the photos features a banner by Sacred Heart University. Have you heard of this university? On the other hand, a university such as MIT will not need to send a delegation.

Couple more factors:

  • Language. English is widely taught even in countries that mainly use other languages. The same can't be said of French, Dutch, German, etc.
  • Halo effect from the top universities. I've seen many people not even look at EU universities because all their time is spent researching top universities from the US, UK and Australia; they choose backup schools from those countries as well.
  • While I do not disagree with the language barrier, I would like to mention that at least in many European countries an additional foreign language to English is taught at schools.
    – Christian
    Feb 22, 2022 at 15:12

There are a few explanations here. The first thing to note is there is not much of an addressable market of people who would go to the EU for education. Low income students (<100k income) would not have to pay much in the form of tuition, and high income students (>300k income) likely have enough saved in education plans to afford the education. That would leave only middle income students who might consider going to the EU, but these students would likely favor state flagship schools or schools with scholarships considering career outcomes in the US.

The second point is that most private universities are charging what people are willing to pay. For "admission" into high finance, academia, or medicine where people can garner very high salaries, going to a "prestigious" college is a huge advantage. People are therefore willing to take out a loan with the chance to make it back many times over in their mid to late career.

And finally, the reputation of academia is mostly defined by outlier research academics, not undergrads or tuition pricing. As long as these universities produce outlier intellectuals and intellectual capital stemming from these universities, they will be able to charge much higher rates without losing anything.

  • 1
    It is worthwhile to note that the median household income in the US is ~65'000$ per year, thanks for giving some soft numbers on the "perceived income classes". Questions: 1) is your experience in humanities, STEM, economics? 2) do you have a minority background (feel free not to answer)?
    – EarlGrey
    Feb 22, 2022 at 8:09
  • @EarlGrey Yes, it is true that the median household income is 65k but you have to consider that the median student doesn't go to college in the US, much less a "good" college. If we are adjusting for the population of these schools then the distributions shift radically. In fact these distributions are almost meaningless without considering geography. Where I am from 200k is a job that you could get with less than 5 years of experience and you would never be able to raise a family on such money. I am in STEM and from a minority background.
    – GTOgod
    Feb 22, 2022 at 8:16
  • The percentage of the population 25 years and older holding at least a bachelor’s degree has increased by about five percentage points across the 15 years from 2004 to 2019. Now 1/3 of the US population has a Bachelor degree in something. May you expand on the geographical distribution of these people?
    – EarlGrey
    Feb 22, 2022 at 8:29
  • Education may have increased across the board but the quality of students has not. This corresponds to is more junk universities at the bottom producing useless degrees. This probably contributes to the increase in tuition for the top universities since these "prestigious" degrees are more valuable signals then ever. At one of these universities (at least where I did my undergrad) you would see very wealthy people normally from select regions of California or the tristate area and from very specific demographics. Then, there would be sets of admits who were admitted for "other" reasons.
    – GTOgod
    Feb 22, 2022 at 8:33
  • The median household income for California is $80,440 ( eu.usatoday.com/story/money/2020/11/20/… ). The quality of students actually improved, especially in California ( latimes.com/california/story/2021-12-15/… ). I would drop your first explanation based on perceived income classes, but the others stand true.
    – EarlGrey
    Feb 22, 2022 at 17:15

The main reason is alumni associations and networking. Going abroad, the median american studen will loose all the (possible) connections at home, therefore shooting in their own feet.

If a student graduate as a surgeon from a R1 university, statistically they will have vastly better career outcome than graduating from a R2 university (of course it is all relative to US moral and ethical standards, better career means earning 6 digit salary while enjoying 3 weeks of holiday per year).

Funnily enough, the alumni network strength is still based on the reputation of R1 universities, which in turn is based on their research and closeness to public spending, which is based strongly on the inflow of smart, hard working PhDs from unknown and minor universities from all over the world. Yes, the courses attended by PhD students have a very minor impact on their formation/education.


The language barrier is a big consideration. Students are required to take a foreign language in high school. On the other hand, even in states that used to be part of Mexico, there are still people here who are on "you're in America, and you need to speak American!" Being bilingual is still quite the afterthought for many.

That said, it'd be a complete culture shock for most Americans to try to get an education in a country speaking a foreign language. There are even some that struggle with just English. It's a wrap once they arrive in Europe expecting everyone to accommodate them, and it doesn't work out.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .