It’s no secret that the cost of higher education in the US is a nightmare and that my generation is defined by student loan debt. A perennial favorite of news outlets is to talk about the cost of education in other countries and how many American students are looking abroad for school.
While they always share the success stories, they never tell you exactly how to find an international university for that degree. In the last year I did a lot of research, and here’s a guide on higher education abroad!
What schools are best? Who offers programs in English? Where do I see myself living? Does it count in the US?
Why do I want to study this specific field and what am I willing to do to get there?
For me it had been brewing a while because I blog about museums, so a future working with museums and cultural heritage was what I wanted. This guide will be written from that POV and my desire to get a Master’s. My location focus is on Europe. The process began in March 2016 and ended exactly a year later for application deadlines.
This guide can also be adapted for undergraduate use.
Research organizations in your field that serve as a network for professionals.
I used LinkedIn to search and message people that listed the orgs as an affiliation and noted where they went to school to check out those programs. I also made contacts with individuals through their groups, including one who became my mentor throughout the process. They directed me to other people and I began interviewing them about their experiences to get a realistic picture of the field.
After speaking to roughly 15 professionals in varying areas, I felt adequately informed on what to expect after completing an MA.
Identify a region you can see yourself living and studying in.
I didn’t want to rule out US schools and wanted to compare information to something I felt comfortable with. I looked at states I could see myself living in and then went to each university’s website to search their departments. I made a spreadsheet with each school’s information, a direct contact, and cost. Separate from that I made a notebook of pros and cons for every program.
The listings were generous with US programs, but sparse with international options. I found a global listing on another museum website that gave me the first step in where to look abroad.
The US was the easy part. What followed took weeks of work.
Cross Check, Triple Check.
The biggest hurdle in finding a program taught abroad was finding on that was only in English. The problem with many international school listings is that they are never consistent, lack important details, and open up a whole world of new terms and scheduling. Even University websites can be vague about the language.
I used FindaMasters.com, MastersPortal.com, and GradSchools.com to search for specific terms and made a list of schools. I even looked up the schools that attended international school recruitment events to see if they were relevant.It didn’t feel complete, so then, using this amazing map tool, I manually went through every single country and looked up every single university to catch any I missed and confirm that each had what I wanted.
You can imagine the time this took, and so make sure you note every url, email, and program name. Set up a folder in your email for future correspondences and tag email threads with a school name.
I also discovered that “museum studies” was too vague and limiting, and many listings and schools used “cultural heritage”, “heritage studies”, or “heritage preservation”. Expand word choices and if you see a phrase pop up often, write it down and use it in your searches.
Say Hello, Look Up Funding
After dozens of university websites, I finally had a list. By now it was June.
I emailed department heads to ask for more information, hit up students on LinkedIn, and looked through Facebook groups of current students. I narrowed it down again and again, and then moved on to visiting the schools that were local to me in the US. I made appointments and talked to their department directors, including about financial aid.
When my top US school would have cost triple the amount of an EU program, not including cost of living, the list became smaller. Many programs in the EU are for a year and were significantly more affordable.
Tuition for a Master’s from some my selected schools:
(not including living costs or fees)
2 years in the US:
$59,680 (Mid Atlantic School)
$47,653 (Northeastern School)
$33,072 (State School)
1 year in Europe:
$21,015 (United Kingdom)
Unfortunately many US-based scholarships are not applicable to foreign schools, and the few grants and scholarships available from international schools are usually reserved for top GPA applicants.
The US Department of Education offers this FAQ with details about Federal Funding and a list of international schools that participate (opens as an Excel spreadsheet). You have to fill out a FAFSA and will need your school’s country code because it may not be in their system automatically.
Will a non-American degree be valuable?
It surprised me how often this came up, so I turned to one of the most common resources used by undergraduate students here in the states: US News & World Report issue the “Best College” guidebook. They also have an online Global University Ranking.
In the 2017 guide, their method looked at 1,262 institutions in 65 countries. They included schools based on “academic research and reputation overall” rather than “their separate undergraduate or graduate programs”. It also considered those that “had published the largest number of articles during the most recent five-year period (2010-2014)” (Read more here). With this data, cross referenced with the rankings hereand here,I was able to get a better idea about reputations.
The verdict? In some cases the schools I was looking at abroad were either higher or comparable to the ones I was considering in the US.
See it for yourself.
I thought long and hard, spending weeks to mull every detail over and looked up the cost of living. I researched potential fellowships, the weight of EU degrees in the US, and school accreditation. All of it was a blur and intimidating to make a decision based off websites. By now it was August.
Two of the schools were in the same country within 2 hours distance of the other and they were both having open houses in November. It was the off season to travel and my local international airport had cheap airfare through Norwegian. I found myself on a red eye with only a backpack, arriving to the first open house with an hour to spare.
I am SO glad that I went in person to see these places, because I would have made the wrong choice based off my original list.
I’m going for it.
A letter of motivation, a certified copy of your diploma via mail (NOT digital), a transcript, additional docs. In the end I applied to three programs at only two international schools.
Make sure you have looked each school’s application website because some places require registration in advance. Don’t expect to upload all your docs on the day you are ready to hit submit. If needed, renew your passport before you start the process.
I notified the department heads that I applied, and had I emailed sooner I would have had my fee waived. They noted my visit as an international student, and I regret not following up.
Each school strictly required a bank transfer to pay your application fee, no credit cards or online payment, and my local banking branch was confused. In addition to the application fee:
1) The bank has a fee to send the money.
2) Some schools have a fee to receive the money.
You must have the exact amount needed and confirmed with the university, and have every detail of their routing numbers correct.
Then, you wait.
and know that you’ve done all you could do.
Congrats! You’ve earned this!
I emerged with an acceptance to my top choice and began the process of working with my future university’s International Student office. It’s wise to purchase a printer with a scanner if you don’t have access to one because of the amount of paperwork that needs to be signed and scanned over on a regular basis. Save phone numbers for specific administrative offices and note the time zones.
If you’re going through with a Federal Loan, the Financial Aid office will be in contact with a series of steps, and more documents, in order to secure it. You need that information completed in order to apply for a visa.
In the Netherlands, students must have health and liability insurance or else you get fined. My American policy (surprise) wasn’t accepted, so I signed up for one through the university.
When the above paperwork has been completed, you can then submit a visa application. By now you should have a renewed passport ready to go, and if you’ve got a recent headshot photo save a copy in case you have to upload it for a student ID card.
While all of this is going on, finding viable housing either though the university or through outside channels should be something you keep your eye on. Join Facebook Groups, communicate with current students, or ask your department head for details.
If you are from the US, this is also a good time to start learning the metric system and military time.
I hope that my experience guides you, and if you’ve got something you want to share or questions I’d love to chat!
As for what it’s like to START a degree program abroad? I’ll know soon enough!