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Is tuition in Europe really US$300 or €200 a year? That is one tenth the cost of the tuition in the developing country university where I took my bachelor's and master's.

Is it really true that some developed country universities charge that much to non-scholars? Why? I heard of universities like that, but everyone who goes to such university is considered a scholar of his/her state due to such universities being heavily funded. Is that the case? Does Europe invest a lot in education, or something?

I find it very hard to believe. How do people get paid? The school has to consider food, maintenance, utilities, salaries of janitors, funding researchers and professors, etc.

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    In several European countries it is even completely free! Following EU regulations, all the countries that offer free university to their nationals should offer free university to the citizens of the other EU countries that also offer free university. Some, like Sweden, extends it to all EU, Nordic, and Swiss citizens. Of course, universities still need funding to run, but money comes from elsewhere. – Davidmh Jul 29 '15 at 19:21
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    Just because tuition is low doesn't mean education is cheap. It's just paid by someone else. Most likely education is a lot more expensive in Western Europe than in your country. – Cape Code Jul 29 '15 at 19:33
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    @CapeCode Right. "Someone else" usually being "everyone who pays taxes." The same is true of U.S. public universities, just with different ratios of tax subsidies to tuition. – reirab Jul 29 '15 at 19:39
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    An educated population is good for democracy and society in general. It pays back eventually, but one has to look further than just until next election... – Per Alexandersson Jul 29 '15 at 20:27
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    As a European: is education in the US really this expensive? – Federico Poloni Jul 29 '15 at 20:49

10 Answers 10

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Yes European higher education can be fairly cheap for the students, especially in those countries where universities are mainly public, and hence are largely funded by their respective governments. This means that they do not need to charge high fees to their students to cover for costs. Nevertheless their campuses offer all the facilities their students need, in terms of libraries, food canteens, lecture rooms, laboratories, etc..

Let's take France as an example. The French Ministry of Education defines, for each academic year, the fees to be applied by all public universities across the country. Here are the fees for 2015 (in French). Just to quote a few numbers (all fees are for one academic year):

  • Bachelor's: 184€ | 122€ (reduced fee for low-income students)
  • Master's: 256€ | 168€ (reduced fee for low-income students)
  • 5-year Engineering Diploma: 610€
  • PhD: 391€ | 260€ (reduced fee for low-income students)
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    @JoErNanO - Do I misunderstand the question? I think he said he studied in a 'third world' university, not the US? – horse hair Jul 29 '15 at 19:24
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    Incidentally, the vast majority of U.S. universities are also public and funded primarily by taxes, so that's not really a difference. The difference is the percentage of the costs that are subsidized by taxes vs. what is paid through tuition (which could be paid out-of-pocket, from scholarships, from loans, from graduate assistantships, etc.) – reirab Jul 29 '15 at 19:42
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    @CapeCode : according to whom? I know a few professors from French public universities and none of them have ever made such a comment. – Massimo Ortolano Jul 29 '15 at 21:23
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    @CapeCode: since they are friends of mine, indeed they would criticize the system at least with me. I think you have a quite distorted view of the French university system: it might be not perfect (but which system is perfect?), but it is surely not worse than many other systems, and definitely not a disaster. For example, along almost twenty years of teaching in university I had the opportunity to examine also students coming from French public universities, and really they couldn't be considered the product of a disaster system. – Massimo Ortolano Jul 30 '15 at 9:45
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    @CapeCode I studied abroad at the Université Aix-Marseille just 1.5 years ago. It was far from a disaster. And AFAIK l'Université Lille I is also far from a disaster (my uncle went there). I'm not sure about making broad claims like that. If anything, you should be of the opinion that American public universities are a disaster, considering that I'm $52,000 in debt and still have 2 more years of schooling. That is beyond disastrous for our youth; I don't care how 'good' our universities may be. – Chris Cirefice Jul 30 '15 at 13:17
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Just read OECD statistics. "Underdeveloped" countries are not in OECD, but they presumably spend less per student and charge more because they can't afford public investment (or vice versa, they don't invest so they're underdeveloped).

First chart. The average expense per student per year in OECD is about 14000 USD (in tertiary education ~ university).

Second chart: there are mainly three groups of countries when it comes to tuition fees and student support (which must be considered jointly). Some countries (bottom) like Sweden are heaven, with zero tuititions and high support for students. Some (left-bottom) are tougher, with near-zero student support even though there are costs (worst is Italy). Some (like New Zealand) have considerable costs but nearly everyone is supported by the State.

Fees don't cover costs in any country (Chile is around 80 % and that's the highest).

I did not find a chart including opportunity cost and cost of life, which are actually the biggest share of university costs in most countries.

Annual expenditure per student by educational institutions for all services, by level of education (2011) Chart B1.2a.

Relationship between average tuition fees charged by public institutions and proportion of students who benefit from public loans and/or scholarships/grants in tertiary-type A education (2011):

Chart B5.1.

  • This answer highlights an ambiguity in the question. If the question is end-user fees, then this doesn't seem to answer that (or else I'm parsing "expenditure per student" in a very different way than intended). But it does address the cost to provide the education which is interesting in its own right. – virmaior Jul 30 '15 at 11:27
  • @virmaior, thanks for pointing out unclarity: "end-user fees" are the vertical axis of the second chart, "average tuition fees" which go from 0 to 6 k$. How to make it clearer? – Nemo Jul 30 '15 at 12:11
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    It's really sad how the UK has climbed up that list so fast. Just ten years ago it was literally a tenth of the current cost to new undergrads. – Lightness Races with Monica Jul 31 '15 at 17:48
  • @LightnessRacesinOrbit indeed, by now the university of England is mostly known in the rest of Europe for its... innovative student support schemes, so to say. bbc.com/news/magazine-33166550 – Nemo Aug 2 '15 at 13:10
  • @Nemo: LOL! Well, um, that's a pretty sensationalist article. I wouldn't put too much stock in it. Certainly I've never personally heard of anyone doing this. If this is now how British Unis are "mostly known in the rest of Europe", then that's pretty sad. – Lightness Races with Monica Aug 2 '15 at 13:20
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There already a number of answers confirming that indeed academic education in Europe is often very cheap compared to the US, mainly because these are funded by the government.

However, one point which is not mentioned in other answers is that you might want to consider indirect cost, or in other words - taxes. In many European countries, you pay more tax to the government than you would pay in the US, and in turn the government can then use that to fund academic studies, provide cheap healthcare, and so on.

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    Well, then you should also consider the cost of health insurance, public transportation, pension (the part that is independent of the tax paid through one's life) to the elderly people, in the US :) Combined these with low cost education system, the on an average 2-5% higher taxes in Europe/Australia/NZ are not at all high. – John Jul 29 '15 at 19:39
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    @John European taxes are much more than 2-5% higher than U.S. taxes. U.S. tax receipts are 26.9% of GDP. Compare that to 39% for the U.K., 44.6% for France, 40.6% for Germany, 46.8% for Belgium, 43.6% for Finland, 45.8% for Sweden, 42.6% for Italy, 43.6% for Norway, 37.3% for Spain, etc. Australia is more in line with the U.S., though, at 25.8%. NZ is 34.5%. Switzerland is also more U.S.-like at 29.4%. – reirab Jul 29 '15 at 19:54
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    The figures above were all taxes, not just income taxes. This includes sales, property, income, etc. And, yeah, NYC and SF are not at all comparable to the rest of the U.S. They're among the top few most expensive places to live in the country. – reirab Jul 29 '15 at 20:16
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    This is not the place to discuss whether the cost of living is actually higher in the US or Europe. Please take it to chat. – David Richerby Jul 29 '15 at 21:15
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    Actually it's not a place to discuss about the US at all as per the question. – Cape Code Jul 30 '15 at 6:57
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"In Europe" may be too broad; there are different models. I'll give you another data point.

In Germany, higher education is basically free. That means,

  • there is no tuition fee¹ at public universities, which are the norm;
  • you'll pay about 200€ for public transport, student councils/groups, university sport, and other charitable services on campus;
  • you can apply for BAFöG subsidies (funded from taxes) to cover your living cost if your parents can not do so;
  • you will have to pay for material (pen and paper, books, computer, lab consumables, ...) but can write these costs off after you graduate, i.e. reduce your taxable income.

So, you won't be able to study for free, literally, but the university itself runs without you paying a dime -- the society pays for it.


  1. At least not EU citizens that pursue their first academic grade and finish within reasonable time bounds.
  • It's important to keep in mind that our public universities (try to) compete with the top universities of other, tuition-based systems. The stigmas of such countried do not carry over; private schools are in the minority here, and usually don't pursue science (but offer job training). – Raphael Jul 30 '15 at 12:41
  • I assume that BAFöG does limit to German citizens or long-time residents, is that right? – gerrit Jul 30 '15 at 13:15
  • @gerrit The BAFöG law is very long and complicated with lots of exceptions and exceptions from the exceptions and exceptions from the exceptions of the exceptions. But generally this is correct. There are also special rules for EU citizens over non-EU foreigners. – Philipp Jul 30 '15 at 14:13
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Yes. The fees for the domestic students in European/Australia/New Zealand universities are very nominal. In some countries such as the UK, Australia, New Zealand, etc., the fees are 3-4 times higher for the international students compared to the domestic students. The domestic students' education can hence be viewed as subsidised by their respective governments. One way of looking at it is that at least the domestic students in these countries may not have to be away from education only because of the financial (read: fees - living expenses is a different issue and perhaps not all governments may be helping in it) reasons. Or, to some extent (for students who are still early on their life/career), ability of getting higher education doesn't depend on how well their parents are doing.

I should also mention that in the UK some of the recent fees hikes by the universities haven't gone well with the domestic students. However, even with these fee hikes, the levels are still significantly lower than the US counterparts.

It is just the US (and probably Canada) where even state universities charge ridiculous fees most of the times to their domestic students. In the US, the domestic students may be able to take loans to cover the fees and living expenses. However, it is a loan and someday you have to pay it back.

Academically, there is no significant difference between the US and Europe/Australia/NZ universities. e.g., no. of universities top 500-1000 ranked universities per capita could very well roughly be the same for all these countries including US/Canada. e.g., all the total 8 universities in New Zealand are in top 500 of the QS World University Rankings.

Personally, one of differences I have seen while being a student, researcher and faculty member in Europe/Australia/US is the amount of spending by the US universities on its Public Relations departments and on sports teams ):

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    State university tuition in the U.S. varies a lot by location. It's actually quite cheap in my state and, even then, almost anyone who meets the qualifications to get in is eligible for scholarships that cover most or all of the cost. I was actually paid about $5,000 USD per year to go to a rather good U.S. public university (purely from academic scholarships.) Note however, that there is usually no such thing as 'domestic' rates for U.S. public universities; just in-state and out-of-state rates, since the universities are funded by the state governments, rather than federal. – reirab Jul 29 '15 at 19:34
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    It is true that U.S. universities spend a ton of money on sports, though. It's quite common for the most highly-paid people on campus to be the sports coaches or athletics directors, often even more than the university Presidents. – reirab Jul 29 '15 at 19:44
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    Canada's tuition fees are regulated by provinces, and while the fees are higher than in Europe, they are definitely much cheaper than in the US, at the very least for those provinces' respective residents. (My tuition averaged about $CAD 2-3k/year, but it can vary considerably from province to province.) – Kareen Jul 30 '15 at 5:46
  • In Australia, there is the HECS system (pay back CPI indexed loan when you start earning a decent wage). While course fees are less than the U.S They are far from "nominal". see here. A typical fee is about $3,000 to $9,000 per year if you have a HECS place. Furthermore, many post-graduate courses are full fee (e.g., $20,000 per year is not unusual), which can often also be deferred as a loan to be repaid later. – Jeromy Anglim Jul 30 '15 at 8:42
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    @reirab: Sports programs also generate revenue for their schools -- it can be quite a large amount of money for schools with major football programs. There has been a long-running debate as to whether sports programs actually help or hurt a university's bottom line. There's no clear answer, because some of the revenue may be linked to sports in an indirect way, e.g., because alumni follow college football and that hypothetically makes them more likely to donate. – Ben Crowell Jul 30 '15 at 17:06
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According to this page -- http://nces.ed.gov/FastFacts/display.asp?id=76 -- the average cost per year at a private, non-profit U.S. college (i.e. not state subsidized) is $39,000. That includes tuition plus room and board.

Let's compare that to Germany, just to pick one European country as an example. According to this page -- http://www.marketplace.org/topics/education/learning-curve/how-german-higher-education-controls-costs -- the average cost of a year at a German college is $32,000. That's what the government spends: it's free to the student.

This comparison is not entirely fair as the number for Germany does not include room and board, and even private U.S. schools get government money in various ways that is not included here. But from this admittedly very simplistic comparison, it appears that the true cost of education in the U.S. and Germany is about the same, at least in the same ballpark. Of course you could debate the quality of the education received endlessly: that's not easy to measure.

Where does the money come from in Germany? From taxpayers. Where does the money come from in the US? From a mix of the student and his family, government assistance, and private scholarships. Most American students borrow most of the money and pay it back after they graduate.

So higher education in Germany is free in the sense that the student doesn't have to pay at the time he attends. But he ends up paying for it through his tax dollars for the rest of his life. As the total cost is about the same, he's going to end up paying about the same amount in extra taxes as the American spends in tuition.

There's less practical difference between the two systems than you might at first think. In Germany students pay nothing while attending school, but then pay for it through taxes for the rest of their lives. Maybe 40 years from graduation to retirement? In America most students pay little or nothing while attending school, but then pay for it through student loan payments for an average of about 20 years.

Poverty doesn't keep a German out of school because it's paid for by the government. But low income Americans can get all sorts of financial assistance and then get loans to pay the rest, so poverty isn't that much of a bar to education in the U.S. either.

You could debate the pros and cons endlessly. The German spreads his payments out over his entire life while the American concentrates it into 20 years. The American may find himself unable to make his debt payments if he can't find a good job, etc, while the German's taxes are presumably based on his income so while he may complain it should still be manageable. The American can decide how much he is willing to spend for college, while the German cannot decide how much he will pay in taxes to support education. In Germany if you can't pass the entrance requirements, you're out of luck. In the U.S., if you can't pass entrance requirements you can't get into your first choice school, but you can almost always get in somewhere. A German who isn't admitted into college still has to pay taxes for others to attend, while an American who doesn't attend college doesn't have to pay for it. (Well, he still has to pay taxes to support the various government programs that exist, but these are much less than what the German pays.) Etc. I'm sure you could think of other pros and cons.

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Yes, the education in Europe is pretty cheap. The school does not have to worry about the finances as they are taken care of by government funding.

As a foreigner, I paid less than 4K Euros in Netherlands for my MSc tuition fees.

I know that this is the case in Germany and France. In France, government pays some allowance to students for transportation and lodging costs. In Germany tuition fees is almost zero (My data is from 2009, things may have changed now).

  • Okay 4000 euros is understandable. That is close to the amount my university charges for 2 years either grad or undergrad. But 200/yr or 400/2 yrs? :O I'm guessing your master's was for around 2 years. So your is 10x the one suggested in the comment I linked. Also, your last point is right, I think. – Jack Bauer Jul 29 '15 at 17:57
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    I remember, this was because I was a non-EU national. For NL natives and EU nationals, it was almost free. Don't remember the exact costs though. – mkc Jul 29 '15 at 18:01
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    To my understanding, it is cheap because education in Europe is considered kind of a public service. Just like a public library. – mkc Jul 29 '15 at 18:20
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    "The school does not have to worry about the finances as they are taken care of by government funding." I don't know about the Netherlands, but universities in France worry very much about their funding, because state funding is considered insufficient by many and is the source of much tension. – fkraiem Jul 29 '15 at 18:29
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    By worry, I meant they don't have to rely on students to fill the fiscal gaps. Not in the sense that they have a cow to milk anytime they wish. I guess they still have to be competent to get grants. – mkc Jul 29 '15 at 20:25
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Some statistics:

enter image description here

Some countries prefer to directly charge students (tuition fees), other charge the active population through taxes. It might depend on many other factors, e.g. the field.

Here is the cost of business schools in France, as you can see it is not that cheap (tuition fee is the 3rd column):

enter image description here

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    "Superior"? (In "Primary", "Secondary", "Superior"). Isn't the correct term "Tertiary"? – Peter Mortensen Jul 31 '15 at 11:04
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    Business schools are an exception in France: this is one of the only field where students must pay a lot. In science, there are some private schools which are very expensive, but there are also a lot of public schools which are quite cheap. Note that all the "best" french schools in science are public (according to every ranking). – Tom Cornebize Jul 31 '15 at 12:16
  • @PeterMortensen I used Google translate :) – Franck Dernoncourt Jul 31 '15 at 16:26
  • @TomCornebize Yes, it was meant to be an example of "It might depend on many other factors, e.g. the field.". (and as you know, all the "best" french b-schools are private). – Franck Dernoncourt Aug 1 '15 at 18:07
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In the U.S. we have seen the cost of publicly funded education at all levels rise astronomically over recent years. For example, the College Board shows a table of average costs ranging over time at http://trends.collegeboard.org/college-pricing/figures-tables/tuition-fees-room-board-time-1974-75-2014-15-selected-years

Their chart shows that, for example, average annual public four-year tuition and fees have gone up from $2,469 in 1974 to $9,139 in 2014. (This is in 2014 dollars.)

One of the main reasons publicly funded higher education is so much cheaper in many other countries than in the U.S. has to do with the differences in the health care systems. Employers in the education sector make a significant contribution to employees' health care costs. I looked for a link with some numbers. I found a Forbes article that says

The time price of health care has quadrupled in less than 50 years [in the U.S.] even as the time cost of other goods and services plummeted.

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    Health care is far more expensive in the U.S. than elsewhere, but this is not one of the primary factors behind the differences in public university tuition. For example, in the UC system's budget, all employee and retiree benefits combined account for just 18% of expenditures from "core funds" (state funding and tuition). Health care costs are a large fraction of these benefits, but not the entirety. – Anonymous Mathematician Jul 30 '15 at 3:39
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    Tuition amounts to 46% of core funds, so even completely eliminating all employee and retiree benefits could only cut tuition by 39%. That's not a realistic comparison (European countries don't achieve zero cost for benefits), yet it's not nearly enough to account for some of the tuition differences. – Anonymous Mathematician Jul 30 '15 at 3:39
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    A much more likely reason for the raise in tuition is easy access to credit via government subsidies. – Cape Code Jul 30 '15 at 7:16
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    This does not answer the question. The question wasn't about the U.S. at all. And, as others have explained already, the portion of U.S. public university costs that go to fund healthcare is a rather small percentage. Almost the entire difference between the U.S. and Europe on the cost of tuition at public universities is simply a policy difference regarding what percentage of the costs should be subsidized. – reirab Jul 30 '15 at 18:13
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I'm amazed it's that cheap in the US and other European countries. Here in the UK it's a different story.

According to topuniversisties.com (Information correct as of 02/04/2015):

According to recent figures, the average cost per year to study in the UK at undergraduate level as an international student is UK£11,987 (~US$17,860), while for international postgraduate students this average fee rises to £12,390. At all levels, laboratory and clinical degree programs are markedly more expensive, with a clinical degree costing overseas students an average of £24,206 ($36,070) at undergraduate level, with top universities in London charging as much as £34,800 ($51,850).

Combine these fees with the average cost of living in the UK, around £12,000 ($17,850), and the total average costs to study in the UK come up to £24,000 ($35,710) per year. Studying in the capital city, meanwhile, is likely to be significantly more expensive.

Although that's somewhat simplifying it, I believe it's cheaper in Scotland. Don't ask me why though.

  • Because the Scottish government heavily subsidises higher education. – Lightness Races with Monica Jul 31 '15 at 17:52
  • @Pharap, you should be careful in comparison. Most of the above answers talk about fees for domestic students. Most countries won't be happy to provide cheap/free education to international students on the country's tax-payers' money understandably. So other countries in Europe may also charge high from international students. – John Jul 31 '15 at 17:58
  • @John It starts getting more complex when you go into domestic costs because it depends which area of the UK you come from and where you're going to, but generally it's going to be at least £6,000, except in Scotland where it's free if you're from Scotland or the EU, but not England, Wales or Northern Ireland. So much for the United Kingom. – Pharap Aug 5 '15 at 10:42

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