It's that time of the year again: high-school seniors around the country are anxiously awaiting the news that will change their lives -- early admission to the university of their choice. But while junior checks his email and the school's website 15 times an hour, parents are checking their savings account statements. As the recession bites into American families' incomes and makes the job search for recent graduates that much trickier, an increasing number of people are beginning to question the cost of attending colleges and universities in the United States.
And consider that cost: Colorado College, for example, has an annual tuition of $39,900 -- and once room, board, and supplies are factored in, that rises to a whopping $52,000 for non-Colorado based students. You have to pay top dollar for a top-ranked school, of course: Colorado College is No. 1 in the nation for being "marijuana friendly," according to test-prep agency Princeton Review.
While Colorado College's fees are at the upper end, it is hardly unique. The College Board suggests that more than two-fifths of full-time undergraduate college students attend a college that charges less than $9,000 per year for tuition and fees -- but, at the other end, more than a quarter are in schools charging $36,000 or more. Some of those students get a scholarship, many get federal aid -- but plenty don't, or don't get enough. Across the United States, college seniors who used loans to help fund their education owed an average of $25,250 upon graduation in 2010. So, perhaps it is not surprising that a Pew Research Center study suggests that 57 percent of Americans think college is of only fair or poor value for the money. And three quarters argue that college is too expensive for most Americans to afford.
There is a simple answer to such concerns: Shop around for a better deal. If junior is willing to travel a little bit further -- to colleges overseas -- the world offers some incredible bargains for quality tertiary education, with the option of free language and culture immersion thrown in. Tuition costs for foreign students at some of the best universities in Asia, Europe, and Africa can be as low as $4,000, well below half the median cost of college in the United States.
Of course, just because a Kia is cheaper than a Lexus doesn't mean it's necessarily better value. What matters is the cost to quality equation. But before assuming that U.S. college education must be of unbeatable excellence, it is worth mulling over a 2006 assessment of adult literacy which found that fewer than a third of four-year U.S. college graduates were fully capable of tasks like comparing viewpoints in two editorials; interpreting a table about blood pressure, age, and physical activity; or computing and comparing the cost per ounce of food items.
Global university rankings, like those from Shanghai University, Britain's Times Higher Education Supplement, and Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), are hardly free of controversy. And they are rarely centered on the student experience -- instead, taking into account things like the number of Nobel prizes awarded to faculty or how many citations the average professor gets in journals that are read by a global readership of 43 (on a good day). Nonetheless, they provide one broad measure of university quality around the globe. And the rankings do suggest the United States remains top dog in terms of world-beating universities. Seven out of the top ten on the Times ranking are American schools, for example. All three rankings have at least two British universities among the top ten, however, and the QS ranking helpfully reports that these universities charge around $22,000 in annual tuition to foreign students -- compared to domestic fees of around $38,000 for the top U.S. schools.
That said, 99 percent of U.S. college applicants don't have a great shot at Harvard and MIT, or have little hope of spending three years shivering in the windswept fens of Cambridge or the fog-bound damp of Oxford. But the good news for prospective students and parents is that the opportunities for bargains get better as you go down the rankings: Canada's McGill University is ahead of America's Duke University, for example, and charges about half the fees. And the Shanghai top 500 includes about 37 universities from low- and middle-income economies. Institutions like the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil and Fudan University in China both rank above renowned U.S. establishments like George Washington University in Washington, D.C. or Notre Dame in Indiana. For the cost-conscious consumer of tertiary education, this high quality comes at truly bargain basement price.
South Africa's University of Cape Town beats out Georgetown University on the QS rankings. But Georgetown's fees are $40,000-plus, compared to an upper end of $8,000 for foreign students attending Cape Town. And only one of the two comes with quality local wine and views of Table Mountain. Or what about the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi -- ranked a little above Notre Dame in the QS rankings, but with annual fees somewhere between a fifth and a seventh of the price? Again, on the same rankings, the American University of Beirut beats out Brandeis -- for one-fifth the price.
Want to combine a quality education with language immersion? Peking University -- No. 49 on the Times criteria, above Penn State -- charges between $4,000 and $6,000 in tuition a year. For those wanting to brush up their Spanish, the Catholic University of Chile ranks considerably above Wake Forest, but the fees are 80 percent lower.
But junior won't just learn language there. The even-better news is that many developing country universities score better on the teaching environment than they do on overall rankings. For example, the Times scores suggests that Peking University's ranking on teaching is better than all but 15 of the 49 universities above it on the list. That may be why a growing number of foreign students are flocking to universities in middle income countries. In 2009, three developing economies -- Russia, China, and South Africa -- attracted nearly 250,000 overseas students between them, according to the OECD.
So, American high-school kids would both pad their resumes and do their parents a favor by considering schools abroad instead of lower-ranked U.S. options. They would also do the United States a favor, because the country's tertiary education system is looking increasingly isolated in a globalizing world. The OECD suggests that the number of students enrolled in college outside their country of citizenship worldwide climbed from 2.1 million to over 3.5 million between 2000 and 2009. But U.S. undergraduates accounted for only 0.4 percent of that global total. The Institute for International Education can only find evidence of 12,425 U.S. students enrolled in overseas undergraduate degree programs (almost half of them in Britain). Compared to an overall U.S. tertiary student body of around 20 million, that's about 0.06 percent.
Meanwhile, when it comes to importing scholars, the OECD suggests that, in terms of absolute numbers, the United States still leads the world in attracting foreign students. In 2009, U.S. universities took in 18 percent of the global total of study abroad candidates, but that had dropped from 23 percent in 2000, and left U.S. colleges and universities as a whole with less than two-thirds the OECD average of foreign student enrollment.
That's bad news for America: not least, a limited number of people who have spent time living abroad helps account for the country's dire lack of polyglots. Only about 14 percent of Americans claim they can speak Spanish well enough to hold a conversation -- a surprisingly low number considering that 16 percent of the country reports being of Hispanic or Latino origin. A little over 4 percent can have a chat in French, and a little less than 3 percent German -- and if we move onto Mandarin or Urdu, we're talking fractions of a percent. As well as being a potential national security issue, a denuded flow of students in and out of the United States reduces the country's ability to trade, invest, and exchange technology internationally.
All of which suggests the government ought to be helping the more intrepid American high school graduates enroll in college abroad. Why not change the requirements for institutional participation in federal student aid programs to allow foreign schools to provide support to U.S. student tuition and living costs? Or expand study abroad programs like the Gilman Scholarship to cover full degree programs overseas? Or perhaps extend Fulbright scholarships to cover undergraduates? Or, perhaps even more effective: advertise the fact that, in most of the rest of the world, the legal drinking age is 18.