should you really consider a foreign university?

If you're going to attend a foreign college, make sure you know what you're getting into and pick your host country wisely.

cn tower reflection
Photo by Yeshi Kangrang

We’ve discussed college education in depth on this blog. Over the years we covered why it’s probably not the best choice for everyone, how instead of opening doors to new and rewarding careers it can actually close those doors, trap you in a certain field for decades despite your interests, or even fail to open any doors in the first place as it unfortunately happens with many new graduates. On top of that there’s the sheer expense of the education itself and those student loans can only be discharged when aliens invade or the world ends, as if just being administered by companies with dubious ethics and practices wasn’t enough. But say you still want a college education but not an exorbitant price and a top-tier university. So what do you do? Well, if you’re bold enough to follow an unusual but sometimes heard recommendation, you can get your degree in China, Canada, Germany, or a number of any other nations with great universities. Tuition is much cheaper, there’s a certain prestige associated with your future diploma, and you get to live in another country long enough to take in its culture, learn a new language, and open your eyes to the world. So, time to apply and pack your bags?

Maybe, but not so fast. Certainly all the benefits listed above are true but this assumes that you can get into an elite foreign university, that you’ll actually be welcome there, and that your education will be accepted as valid by the companies asking to see your diploma. All three are actually a lot trickier than they sound since an elite foreign college will have the same limitations on enrollment as elite schools in America. While we bemoan a very high rate of legacy applicants, that is children of alumni being guaranteed a significant potion of slots per enrollment season, in many countries legacy applications are the norm rather than a controversial custom. In fact, in China or Russia, you have to have connections before you even apply to top schools. Certainly you can send an application, but the chances that anyone will read it aren’t great unless you include a note from either an important someone in the community, or someone who works at the university asking that your application be read and considered. For all the faults and ethical questions around legacy admissions in the U.S., it has what we could call a fairly meritocratic system as compared to many other nations. Sure, Harvard cares about your family status and income in its decision process, but to Shanghai University, they’re key.

Likewise, it’s important to remember that not all countries really like or tolerate foreigners. One of the things I like most about the United States is how it tries to incorporate immigrants into its society. When getting on the bus to go to an American school for the first time, I was overwhelmed by kids asking about my accent, where my original home was, and what it was like. At the school, I started out with an ESL program meant to get me up to speed in English as quickly as possible and quickly transitioned into typical English classes going into high school. This kind of experience simply can’t happen in many countries because foreigners are kept at an arm’s length. To Americans, separated by two oceans from many nations and rarely venturing very far beyond their borders, foreigners are a novelty. In Europe? Not so much. They get foreigners driving to work across an international highway system every day. In homogenous Asian societies? They’re not exactly welcome to stay beyond vacations or business trips. As a result, a lot of them are always reminded that they’re foreigners and aren’t necessarily welcome to stay after they’re done with their education or project. This doesn’t mean they’re not going to be treated politely or shown hospitality by the locals, but they will have a very good understanding that they’re guests and after their time there is up, they should really consider packing and going home.

And that brings us to the final question of whether your foreign degree will be accepted by all employers and if your intention is to go to graduate school, your credits will count and you won’t have to retake many courses. A different country has a different pedagogic style, different philosophies of how to break subjects down, and on how to best grade students. Differences in those philosophies mean that two colleges won’t necessarily see eye to eye on how to award credits and degrees, and thus, have very different policies about how to treat each other’s alumni. Considering that in the U.S. the same issue plays out between two colleges in the same town, you can just imagine how complex dealing with degree from different nations would get. The same issue can apply to employers who could have a lot of questions about what your degree actually taught and whether you can do the relevant job. Granted, in many cases this is only relevant at an interview because at work you could often end up doing tasks you never thought you would be doing, but to get that job you’ll need to go through an interview process. Now, all that said, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t even consider getting a degree from a foreign college or that you wouldn’t get a terrific education and some eye-opening experiences. But be careful and weigh your options, and consider studying abroad for a year or two and finishing a degree in the U.S.

# education // college / college degrees / higher education


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