Some public universities in European countries – including France, Germany and Norway – charge students little to nothing for tuition, regardless of nationality.
This may be hard to believe for students and parents who are more used to hearing about the increasingly high cost of college in the U.S. But students should be aware that the undergraduate student experience at free or very low-cost public universities in Europe, in many ways, differs from a typical U.S. undergrad experience.
“You just have to be prepared that it’s like real life – it’s not college life,” says Colin Cole, a U.S. student working toward a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering at RWTH Aachen University in Germany.
As someone who’s spent time at a public U.S. university in the Midwest and a tuition-free public university in Germany, Cole says his German student experience is more like having a day job. He says he has to be more independent, which has its pros and cons.
For prospective international students interested in avoiding tuition, here are four facts to help create a more complete picture of what it’s like to attend a European university.
1. Proof of financial resources is still required. Students need to show they have enough money to cover their living expenses, says Jennifer Viemont, founder of Beyond the States, a U.S.-based college advising service for students interested in English-taught European programs.
“Just because these schools are free doesn’t mean that you can go over there without a cent in your pocket,” she says.
Students must show they have sufficient financial resources – the amount required differs between countries – in order to gain admission to some universities, and obtain visas or residence permits for certain countries.
There’s more than one way to do this. Parents can submit documents confirming their financial resources and support for their students, and submitting proof of scholarships is another option for some countries.
University and embassy websites have more information about this process and exactly how much money students need to have in the bank.
2. English-taught programs are less common at the bachelor’s level. This means international students may have to spend time learning the local language before they can begin the tuition-free European undergrad program of their choice.
That’s what Calahan Guidolin, an international undergraduate student at Norway’s University of Oslo, did.
The University of Oslo does not charge tuition, but all of its bachelor’s programs are taught in Norwegian.
Guidolin, who hails from Canada, said via email that he spent his first year at the university just learning Norwegian, adding a year to his undergrad experience in a country with high living expenses. He’s now working toward a degree in history.
3. Undergraduate programs are shorter and more focused.European bachelor’s degree programs are typically three years long, as opposed to U.S. undergrad programs, which last four years.
Degree programs in this region of the world are generally very focused on one particular area of study, says Jay Malone, founder of Eight Hours and Change, a U.S.-based service that advises students who want to study in Europe. As a result, these programs don’t have a lot of the electives and general education requirements that U.S. programs do, he says.
4. The grading system may be different. A big part of the difference between the student experience at a tuition-free European university and a tuition-charging U.S. university lies in the expectations that are placed on students, Malone says. Students have to be more independent and self-motivated to succeed at schools in countries such as Germany.
At European universities, sometimes the sole factor that determines a course grade is a student’s performance on a final exam. Contrast this with U.S. universities, where course grades tend to incorporate factors such as attendance, participation in class discussions and various homework assignments given throughout the semester.
Cole, the international student in Germany, says it’s totally up to students how much – or how little – academic work they want to do during the semester. All that matters in terms of grading is whether they pass the final.
But just because European universities may not offer students the sort of academic structure U.S. schools often do, doesn’t mean there aren’t student services available.
Malone says prospective international students should make sure to research the international offices at universities they are considering, since these offices can be key resources for foreign students.
“You can really see a difference in student experience based on the quality of the international office,” he says. “It makes a huge difference.”