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Study: How US College Costs Stack Up With the Rest of the World

Updated on:
Content was accurate at the time of publication.

No one can deny the social and personal benefits of a higher education. College introduces you to new perspectives, challenges you with thought-provoking ideas, and opens the door to high-paying jobs.

But for many students in the U.S., a college education comes with sky-high tuition costs.

According to the College Board, tuition and fees at private universities have risen to an average of $34,740 per year. J.P. Morgan predicts four years at a private college could cost as much as $487,004 in 2035.

Curious how much the rest of the world charges for college, LendingTree took a look at 10 other countries, all of which are home to leading universities. Most had lower tuition fees than the United States, but surprisingly, the U.S. didn’t top the list for most expensive colleges.

Below you’ll find the full ranking, starting with countries with the least-expensive college tuition and counting down to those with the highest.

11. Germany

  • Top-ranked university: Technical University of Munich, ranked No. 60 worldwide
  • Average annual tuition fee at a public college: $0 (some colleges charge a semester contribution fee of about $300 or less)
  • Percentage of population with a bachelor’s: 15%
  • Employment rate for bachelor’s degree holders: 88.1%
  • Student population: 2.98 million
  • Total population: 81.71 million
  • Cost of living index: 73.18, ranked No. 26 worldwide

Germany is one of the few countries in the world that offers free higher education for both German and international students alike. Although some universities charge a small semester fee of about €150 to €250 ($176 to $294) for student services, students essentially get a world-class education at no tuition cost.

However, this policy of free higher education isn’t without its detractors. According to Quartz, a survey by the Ifo Center for the Economics of Education found that 44% of Germans want to bring back tuition fees.

And the state of Baden-Württemberg recently decided to reintroduce fees of €1,500 per semester for international students, citing a €48 million higher education funding gap, reported The Independent. Even if other regions follow suit, this fee remains lower than tuition fees in a lot of other countries.

That’s why so many international students have flocked to Germany. The Institute of International Education (IIE) estimates the number of foreign students studying in Germany for the 2017 school year is 251,542 — an increase of more than 15,000 students over the previous year.

German nationals appreciate the low fees, too. As of 2016, only 18% of German students graduated with loans, according to Inside Higher Ed. Of those with debt, 50% owe less than €4,000. Plus, many German students get financial support from their parents. In fact, German parents are legally obligated to support their children through university.

10. France

  • Top-ranked university: École normale supérieure, Paris, ranked No. 33 worldwide
  • Average annual tuition fee at a public college: $217
  • Percentage of population with a bachelor’s: 9.5%
  • Employment rate for bachelor’s degree holders: 83.3%
  • Student population: 2.39 million
  • Total population: 64.46 million
  • Cost of living index: 81.16, ranked No. 18 worldwide

Similar to colleges in the U.K., many degree-granting programs in France span three years. Unlike their neighbor to the north, though, France charges low tuition fees to its students. Public universities charged only €184 ($217) to students in the 2016-2017 year, according to Campus France.

Fees for international students were the same, which might be why 310,000 foreign students chose France in the 2015-2016 school year, the IIE reported. That being said, fees at private universities are a lot higher, with Campus France showing an average annual cost between €3,000 and €10,000.

Government financial aid is available, as well as subsidies to cover living costs. Plus, a number of organizations offer grants and scholarships to national and foreign students alike.

Health insurance is covered for EU students, and non-EU students can get coverage for an annual fee of €200. Although the majority of programs are taught in French, universities are offering an increasing number of courses in English.

For any international students interested in taking advantage of France’s low tuition, you can get help with the application and Visa process from Campus France.

9. Switzerland

  • Top-ranked university: ETH Zurich, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, ranked No. 8 worldwide
  • Average annual tuition fee at a public college: $1,168
  • Percentage of population with a bachelor’s: 20.1%
  • Employment rate for bachelor’s degree holders: 88.5%
  • Student population: 294,450
  • Total population: 8.32 million
  • Cost of living index: 138.16, ranked No. 2 worldwide

The majority of universities in Switzerland are public institutions, and they charge low or no fees to incoming students. That doesn’t necessarily mean going to college is cheap, though. Switzerland has one of the highest costs of living in the world, second only to Bermuda.

According to Numbeo, the cost of living in Geneva is 32% higher than it is in New York City. Rent for a one-bedroom apartment goes for about $2,000, and an inexpensive meal at a restaurant still costs around $25.

Because so many students receive help from their families, however, only about 15% graduate with a loan, according to SWI. Many receive education grants, plus three-quarters of students work during university to cover living costs.

Students can study in a mix of languages, as most schools offer programs in German, French, or Italian. Some programs are also taught in English, which might be why 2,032 Americans studied in Switzerland in the 2015-2016 school year, according to the IIE.

8. Netherlands

  • Top-ranked university: University of Amsterdam, ranked No. 57 worldwide
  • Average annual tuition fee at a public college: $2,420
  • Percentage of population with a bachelor’s: 20.8%
  • Employment rate for bachelor’s degree holders: 87.5%
  • Student population: 842,601
  • Total population: 16.94 million
  • Cost of living index: 79.61, ranked No. 20 worldwide

Despite lower tuition fees — $2,420 at public colleges — students in the Netherlands are experiencing some of the same debt challenges as those in the U.S. According to Dutch student organization ISO, student loan debt rises by 55 euro cents (67 cents) per second.

Today, students collectively owe €17.6 billion, up from €12 billion five years ago. The average graduate owes €14,000 upon graduation.

This burden makes it difficult to afford other expenses after graduation, such as buying a house. The ISO says the country needs to do a better job of educating students about the real costs of a higher education.

It also started a campaign to reduce tuition costs across the board. If these efforts are successful, tuition costs will go down rather than keep rising, as they’ve been doing for the past few years.

That said, students who are earning less than the full-time minimum wage are not required to make student loan payments. Plus, your monthly bills are typically capped at 4% of your gross earnings above minimum wage.

Because of these safeguards, along with lengthy 15- and 35-year repayment terms, student loan default is not a major problem in the Netherlands. However, students are still more burdened than they used to be as a result of 2015 legislation that replaced grants with loans.

7. China

  • Top-ranked university: Tsinghua University, ranked No. 24 worldwide
  • Average annual tuition fee at a public college: $3,300 to $9,900
  • Percentage of population with a bachelor’s: 3.5%
  • Student population: 43.37 million
  • Total population: 1.38 billion
  • Cost of living index: 45.78, ranked No. 74 worldwide

Public colleges in China have an average tuition cost between $3,300 and $9,900 per year. Unlike in the U.S., where the highest-ranked colleges are private, China’s most prestigious universities are public.

To get in, high schoolers in China must pass the National Higher Education Entrance Examination, or Gaokao. They can only take this intensive, three-day exam once per year, and their acceptance into college is contingent on their performance.

Unfortunately, not all students get the preparation they need to master this exam. Project Partner reported that 95% of students from rural areas drop out before the Gaokao rolls around.

China has more than 2,000 universities with a total student population of 43.37 million, according to UNESCO. It’s also the leading place of origin for international students studying in the U.S.

The IIE revealed that 350,755 Chinese students studied at U.S. colleges in the 2016-2017 school year, making up 32.5% of the total population of foreign students. Comparatively, just 11,668 Americans studied in China in the 2015-2016 school year.

6. South Korea

  • Top-ranked university: Seoul National University, ranked No. 35 worldwide
  • Average annual tuition fee at a public college: $4,578
  • Average annual tuition fee at a private university: $8,205
  • Percentage of population with a bachelor’s: 33.7%
  • Employment rate for bachelor’s degree holders: 77.5%
  • Student population: 565,350
  • Total population: 50.59 million
  • Cost of living index: 81.07, ranked No. 19 worldwide

South Koreans face high tuition fees, with an average fee of $4,578 at public colleges and $8,205 at private ones. To manage these fees, Korean students can get government-backed grants, loans, or work-study from the Korea Student Aid Foundation (KOSAF).

Financial aid from KOSAF is either need-based or merit-based. Student loans are specialized by type, and they include income-contingent loans, loans for rural students, and living expense loans.

The most widely accessible loan types are Direct Loans, and they can be used at the undergraduate or graduate level and have a fixed interest rate of 2.70%. In fact, the interest rate for most KOSAF-backed student loans don’t exceed 2.70%, and some even come with no interest at all.

The standard repayment plan spans 10 years, but students with income-contingent loans don’t have to make payments until their salary exceeds a certain threshold.

An estimated 565,350 South Korean students enroll in their home universities, reported UNESCO. An additional 58,663 South Korean students come to the U.S. to study.

Education is highly valued in Korea, but some economists suggest the financial pressure on families might cause problems in the future.

5. Australia

  • Top-ranked university: Australian National University, No. 22
  • Average annual tuition fee at a public college: $4,763
  • Average annual tuition fee at a private college: $8,827
  • Percentage of population with a bachelor’s: 24.7%
  • Employment rate for bachelor’s degree holders: 84.4%
  • Student population: 2.87 million
  • Total population: 23.8 million
  • Cost of living index: 85.96, ranked No. 13 worldwide

With tuition fees averaging $4,763 per year at public colleges and $8,827 per year at private ones, students in Australia are facing a steep price tag for their degrees.

According to the New York Times, the average Australian student graduates with $22,000 in student loans. They then enter an automatic repayment plan, which is based on their income.

Graduates don’t pay anything until they’re earning around $40,000 or more per year. Once they reach the earnings threshold, they pay between 4% and 8% of their income, a payment the government takes out automatically from their bank accounts.

If their income rises, so do their payments. If their income decreases, payments drop. In the U.S., you need to file paperwork to get on or off an income-driven repayment plan. In Australia, the adjustments happen automatically.

U.S. readers might also be jealous to hear that federal student loans in Australia don’t come with interest. They might rise along with inflation, but they don’t accrue interest before or during repayment.

Whatever your opinion of this system, it makes it almost impossible to default on a student loan. That’s a far cry from the U.S., where nearly 5 million Americans are in default on their student loans, according to the Wall Street Journal.

4. Canada

  • Top-ranked university: McGill University, ranked No. 30 worldwide
  • Average annual tuition fee at a public college: $4,939
  • Percentage of population with a bachelor’s: 20.6%
  • Employment rate for bachelor’s degree holders: 82.8%
  • Student population: 1.01 million
  • Total population: 35.95 million
  • Cost of living index: 72.82, ranked No. 28 worldwide

Canada has over 1 million full-time students and 290,000 part-time students studying across its universities. Although colleges are more affordable than they tend to be in the U.S. — about $4,939 per year at public schools — Canadian students are not immune to student loan debt.

The average student graduates with loans in the amount of 26,819 Canadian dollars ($21,042). However, they don’t necessarily need to start paying back their debt immediately after graduation.

Like Australia and the U.K., Canada has a universal income-based repayment system for college graduates. Students don’t have to pay anything until they start making at least CA$25,000 per year.

If you qualify to pause payments, the government will cover interest for up to 10 six-month periods during the decade after you graduate. If you stay on this repayment assistance plan, you’ll continue to receive government help, as well as a loan discharge after 15 years.

Although these rules help protect Canadian citizens, they’re not available to foreign students. That, along with the higher fees for international students — CA$15,942.90 to CA$40,802.70 per year at McGill, for example — might be why only 1,716 American students studied in Canada in the 2015-2016 school year, reported the IIE.

3. Japan

  • Top-ranked university: The University of Tokyo, ranked No. 34 worldwide
  • Average annual tuition fee at a public college: $5,228
  • Average annual tuition fee at a private college: $8,428
  • Percentage of population with a bachelor’s: 29.4%
  • Employment rate for bachelor’s degree holders: 86.8%
  • Student population: 3.56 million
  • Total population: 127.98 million
  • Cost of living index: 89.50, ranked No. 8 worldwide

Japan’s tuition costs are relatively high, averaging $5,228 per year at a public university and $8,428 at a private college.

Although tuition has risen, News on Japan reported that wages have not. As a result, the government-backed Japan Student Services Organization (JASSO), which lends 99% of the country’s student loans, is seeing a record number of defaults.

Although universities at Japan are not as cheap as in France or Germany, Japan was still a popular study abroad destination for American students. The IIE revealed it was the 10th-most popular destination in the world for study abroad, with 7,415 students going to Japan in the 2015-2016 school year.

2. United States

  • Top-ranked university: MIT, ranked No. 1 worldwide
  • Average annual tuition fee at a public college: $8,202
  • Average annual tuition fee at a private college: $21,189
  • Percentage of population with a bachelor’s: 22.2%
  • Employment rate for bachelor’s degree holders: 81.6%
  • Student population: 19.53 million
  • Total population: 319.93 million
  • Cost of living index: 77.23, ranked No. 24 worldwide

While the U.S. charges some of the highest tuition fees in the world, it’s also home to the greatest number of top-ranked universities. In Top Universities’ QS World University Rankings, more than half of the top 25 schools are located in the U.S., with the top three spots filled by MIT, Stanford, and Harvard.

Joseph Chamie, an independent international demographic consultant and the former director of the UN Population Division, said these rankings might be part of the reason tuition costs are so high.

“Colleges are able to charge higher tuition fees without any diminishment of the people coming in,” said Chamie. “There are always people in line who say, ‘We’ll pay it.’”

These prestigious colleges have no incentive to lower tuition costs, since there is a steady stream of applicants willing to pay whatever it takes to earn their degree from a top school.

This reality, however, can create a ripple effect of unequal access to higher education and later, to high-paying jobs.

“The gap seems to be widening,” said Chamie. “[There are] increasing disparities between upper-level incomes and lower-level incomes.”

Not only do we see an increasing socioeconomic gap, but student debt-burdened graduates are delaying life milestones. Millennials are waiting longer to get married, buy houses, and have children.

Our collective $1.48 trillion in student loan debt poses major challenges to individuals and society at large. Although Chamie doesn’t see it as a national economic crisis yet, he suggests we’re “moving in that direction.”

“How we deal with [student debt] is going to affect our entire society,” said Chamie.

As we adapt to new challenges like globalization and advancing technology, access to higher education becomes even more critical. By looking to other countries, we might find solutions to some of the problems we have at home.

1. United Kingdom

  • Top-ranked university: University of Cambridge, ranked No. 4 worldwide
  • Average annual tuition fee at a public college: $12,414
  • Percentage of population with a bachelor’s: 22.9%
  • Employment rate for bachelor’s degree holders: 84.9%
  • Student population: 2.35 million
  • Total population: 65.4 million
  • Cost of living index: 76.02, ranked No. 25 worldwide

Although the U.S. used to hold the record for highest tuition costs, the U.K. now leads the pack, with OECD estimates putting average tuition fees at a public university at $12,414 per year.

According to Student Loans Company, a government-owned nonprofit organization, U.K. students are graduating £32,220 ($43,298) in debt, even though most bachelor’s degree programs span three years instead of four.

The individual debt burden increased in 2012, with the passing of legislation that allowed universities in England to charge up to £9,000 per year.

Between March 2011 and March 2017, the country’s outstanding student loan debt has risen from £40.2 billion to £100.5 billion, reported Student Loans Company. That debt will likely continue to rise, with some universities charging as much as £9,250 per year.

Sarah Elsey, an English literature major who now runs her own blog, graduated from Liverpool Hope University £47,000 in debt.

“University is too expensive,” said Elsey. “There are funds available for those students who come from less well-off families, but they’re hard to come by. Nearly all students have to get jobs because their student loan doesn’t cover rent for the cheapest student accommodation.”

That being said, Elsey’s repayment plan is manageable for her budget. “Repayment is quite small,” she said. “If you’re on a wage of £21,000 per year, the monthly repayment is £24, which is definitely manageable.”

In the U.K., all college graduates go on an income-based student loan repayment plan. Although this income-based system makes student loan repayment more manageable, it could also leave some borrowers in debt for a lifetime, since it sets the monthly payments quite low.

“It would take me 163 years to pay off my loan,” said Elsey. “If I was on a £30,000 wage, I would be paying £90 per month, taking me 43 years to pay my loan off.”

Fortunately, students don’t have to pay back their student loans forever. If they have a remaining balance after 30 years of repayment, the government will forgive the rest.

Although the U.K. struggles with student debt much like the U.S., its income-based repayment system means some grads are facing lower monthly payments after graduation without having to file any extra paperwork.

Students face high tuition fees around the world

Students in the U.S. aren’t the only ones who are seeing an increase in tuition costs. But some countries have managed to keep costs low, while others help new grads with automatic income-based plans for their student loans.

By keeping a global perspective, we can learn about new — and potentially more effective — systems of tuition, borrowing, and repayment. Plus, we can consider the perspective that public college should be free and accessible for all.

Of course, apart from a few exceptions, we’re a long way off from universal access to higher education. In the meantime, you can prepare yourself for the costs of college by saving money and applying for scholarships.

Before selecting a school, compare tuition costs around the country, not to mention around the world. Wherever you choose to study, you can empower yourself by learning about systems of financial aid and student loan repayment.

Research your options so you have a plan to deal with debt, should you choose to borrow. If you’re already dealing with major debt, search for ways to lighten the load. You might get loan repayment assistance from a government program or employer, or consider refinancing your student debt to lower your interest rate.

Figuring out how to deal with student debt as individuals and as a nation is a complex issue with no simple answers. But when it comes to combating the growing student debt crisis — and improving access to higher education — we must keep sharing our experiences across borders.

Bringing these issues to the forefront of the cultural conversation is an important first step toward enacting reform.

Study methodology

This study collected data on average annual tuition costs, enrollment in tertiary education, employment rates, educational attainment, college student population, total population, and cost of living at 47 countries around the world. The majority of its data came from OECD, UNESCO, the UN Population Division, Numbeo, and Top Universities. Any units of foreign currency were converted to USD using Google Finance’s currency converter tool in December 2017.

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