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College in Europe vs America: 9 Ways They’re Different

Recently, I consulted with an American family planning a move to Spain. Specifically, we were discussing education options for their oldest daughter. She would be in 10th grade on arrival. Their main concern? How an international move during high school would impact her chances of going to college in Europe. College in Europe? The families I work with usually wonder how they’re year abroad might impact their child’s college future in the US.

Differences Between College in Europe vs the US

As an expat blogger helping people move to Spain, I’m regularly asked about education in Spain. The benefits of public versus private school. How the language barrier impacts academics. And other things to consider when choosing a school in a foreign country. But most of the families I work with are moving to Spain for a year. Perhaps two. Eventually, they return home. The kids reintegrate into their American academic lives.

But beyond the professional interest, this question hit home on a personal level. My older son is a senior this year. We’re full throttle on our own college inquiry. Our move to Spain was challenging for him. I therefore presumed he would want to stay in the States for college. Nonetheless, I brought up the idea of college in Europe. To my surprise, he was quite intrigued.

How to Research College in Europe

At first, the notion of opening up another continent in our college search wasn’t appealing. It had taken us months to narrow down a short list of American universities. I had his local high school for support. I had resources passed on by other parents. How do I go about researching universities in Europe?

Suddenly, I remembered an email a friend forwarded me when I first created Family Move Abroad. It was a newsletter from Beyond the States, a website dedicated to Americans looking at higher education options in Europe. Almost instantly, I discovered the potential gains of college in Europe were worth investigating.

From a quick review of Beyond the States services, I learned they provided information only on accredited degree programs at colleges in Europe that teach exclusively in English. Their combination of free resources, paid courses, and subscription service to curate your own research create a one stop shop of unparalleled information on universities in Europe accessible to Americans.

I was so excited about the possibilities, not just for what this could mean for us, but for families moving to Spain as well. I reached out to Beyond the States founder Jenn Viemont. From that interview and digging into her resources, here’s what I’ve learned so far about college in Europe versus college in America.

Admissions Requirements at European Universities Are Fully Transparent

If you follow college admissions at all in the US, then you know the application process is anything but straightforward. As author Jeffrey Selingo states, the admissions process at the most selective schools “is shrouded in secrecy and surrounded by confusion.”

In contrast, the requirements for admission to European universities are completely transparent. Viemont says, “they know what students need to be successful in the program. Your job as a student is to demonstrate you meet those qualifications. If you do, and there’s space, you go.”

It’s important to note, this transparency extends beyond just admissions. European universities are clear about all their expectations. For example, if you’re expected to form your own study groups, they’ll say so. If the uni does or doesn’t provide support for learning differences, they’ll say so. Viemont clarified, “There’s no reason for the schools to not be transparent because it’s not the big business the way it is in the US.”

Going to college in Europe offers many benefits for Americans

Transparent, Yes. Holistic, No.

If you’ve ever eyed competitive colleges in the US, for either yourself or a child, then you know how stressful the process is. Viemont couldn’t wrap it up anymore succinctly. “Students pad their high school resume with extracurricular activities they’re not really interested in just to check off boxes they hope will make them stand out from the crowd. But universities in Europe don’t care that you were captain of your soccer team. That holistic model is not the case in Europe. They care about whether your performance in high school is a good fit for the program you’re interested in.”

Viemont confessed it was her distaste for the college admissions system in the US that led her to create Beyond the States in the first place. She valued higher education immensely. But not the way she was seeing it play out. Once she realized European universities were an option for American students, she jumped all over it.

The Earlier You Know You Want to Go to College in Europe, The Better

Fortunately for her children, Viemont came to this discovery early. Her older child was still in middle school. This allowed her son to opt out of the needless competition within the US while managing his high school curriculum to leave the doors open he might want in Europe.

So why is it better to be aware of this possibility early on in high school? Because the structure of secondary school differs from many of its EU counterparts. An American high school diploma will suffice for admission at many of the universities in the Beyond the States database. But more competitive programs will look for additional credentials. A minimum of three AP classes with a score of 3 or better is one example. Another might be four years of math and science as opposed to the three many US high schools require to graduate.

For this reason, if you have any inkling of going to college in Europe, it’s helpful to know that upon entering high school. This will enable your student to track to the academic standards they’ll need. Better yet, they’ll be able to enjoy their high school years without stressing about all those clubs they feel they should join but don’t want to.

That being said, Viemont says not to fret if you’re coming late to the college in Europe game. Only 350 or so of the 1700 plus universities in her database have these add on requirements for American students. There’s still plenty of opportunity out there.

Getting In Might Be Easier, But You Prove Yourself Your First Year

At the end of your first year, a student’s progress is evaluated and a decision made as to whether they’re allowed to continue in the program. This process is known as Binding Study Advice (BSA). It essentially means, fail too many classes and you’re out of the program. So while European universities are very up front about getting in, it’s ultimately up to the student to prove their merit.

I didn’t ask Viemont if she knew how many students lose their spots each year. But this notion, which I’ve never heard of in the States, prompted my next question… Are European universities harder than in the US?

Student Independence, Academically and Beyond

Viemont doesn’t believe the academics in European universities are inherently more challenging. But, she qualified, expectations on student independence are far greater. “Are classes there harder? Or is there less spoon feeding?” She responded.

She has a valid point. Freshman year at American colleges is often dubbed 13th grade. American universities often require freshman live in campus housing and maintain a full meal plan. In Europe, they treat you like an adult, and expect you to act like one. Undeniably, European first year students must step up to a level of independence far greater than their peers in the US.

For example, Viemont explains, you can’t pass classes without doing the reading. There is a lot of self study. Accordingly, students often must create their own study groups. Similarly, independence is expected in one’s day to day living. Student housing is more apartment style and not typically owned by the university. There’s no meal plan. As such, students must grocery shop and cook for themselves. Taken altogether, students in Europe seemingly have more freedom. But those liberties come with more responsibility.

College in Europe for Americans will require more independence

You Need to Know What You Want to Study

I learned a bit about this facet of the European system while living in Spain. Compared to the US approach, colleges in Europe do demand the student have some sense of where they’re going in their academic lives. There’s little notion of entering college in Europe as an undeclared major. However, that doesn’t mean you need your exact career path nailed down.

For example, say you like math and science. You know that’s what you want to study, but you’re not sure of a specific discipline. Your first year you’ll take math and science classes across a variety of disciplines. Then, in the second year, you declare a specific area of study.

For those who are really at a loss of where to put their focus, there are a handful of liberal arts programs available. But only a few.

Campus Life? Not So Much

When I went to college — yes, a long time ago — I ended up transferring out of New York University. The primary reason? NYU is scattered about the city’s East Village neighborhood. I wanted more of a true campus life. Viemont told me that most schools in Europe will be the decentralized campus akin to NYU. Rare, if at all, will you find an American college setting with dorms and buildings assembled around a quad.

However, she went on to explain that students in Europe spend most of their time in the building that’s home to their field of study. Further, since you don’t have all those gen ed requirements of a liberal arts program, you’re not moving from building to building. The result? The building becomes your campus. The students in your program become your community.

In addition, many of the universities in her database are well integrated into the fabric of the local city life. In this sense, you become a student of the city, as opposed to just a student of that university. Students feel and create a sense of city pride, as opposed to school pride. Specifically, Viemont described it this way, “A true campus is the exception as opposed to the norm. But, if you choose your city wisely, you’ll feel like the whole city is your campus.”

You Can Earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Three Years, Not Four

To be sure, committing to a specific area of study straight out of high school can be daunting for some. I, for one, just turned 50, and I’m still not sure what I want to be when I grow up. Yet, this approach has its upsides. At the top of the list? The ability to finish college in three years instead of four.

Yes. For a bachelor’s degree. The same caliber that takes you a minimum four years to earn in the US. The same level of degree you need to move onto graduate school, at home or abroad. How is this possible? Largely, it’s the result of not having all those gen ed courses mandated by a traditional liberal arts program.

College in Europe is a Fraction of the Cost

As if all the other benefits aren’t enticing enough, you might choose college in Europe for this reason alone. With rare exception, you’ll pay less — far less — for your European college tuition than an in state tuition in your home state. One Beyond the States blog post reports the average cost of all the English-taught bachelor’s programs in continental Europe is just $7,291 per year. We’ve only quickly glanced the database so far. And yet, we’ve found any number of programs my son might be interested in for even less than that.

Of course, as an international student, you’ll have extra expenses getting there and coming home to visit. But the savings from the cheaper tuition combined with getting a degree in three years instead of four would more than offset that.

College in Europe and Moving Abroad in High School — The Benefits

Moving your family to another country requires careful consideration for high school children

Coming back around to that couple’s question… What factors should parents consider when relocating a high school aged child to a foreign country? And how might a move abroad impact options for college in Europe? 

The most direct upside? Moving your child to Europe during high school should, in theory, make European universities even more accessible. Secondary schools in Europe are, by nature, preparing students for higher education in their home countries, and elsewhere on the continent. At a minimum, if your child completes their “bachillerato” years in Spain (grades 11 and 12 in the US) and sits for “Selectividad” (Spain’s college entrance exam), they’ll be able to attend a Spanish university. And, in all likelihood, a university elsewhere in Europe too.

Moving Abroad in High School — Managing the Risks

Many parents moving abroad by choice site learning a second language as a primary motivating factor. Putting your child in a school that teaches in the foreign language will offer the fastest path to becoming bilingual. But, initially anyway, attending high school in a foreign language will result in a hit to their grades. And that hit might have more adverse consequences for college in Europe compared to the US.

Then there’s curriculum. I speak to this from first hand experience. My son’s 8th grade math class in Spain taught content introduced mid-year 9th grade here in Wyoming. There were major differences in how science education was structured. Even my fourth grader reported gaps in these subjects.

I see the hit to grades caused by these issues as the most significant drawback of Europe’s “transparent, but not holistic” model. Viemont confirmed it. “An American college might view a hit to a student’s grades in light of the fact that they attended some portion of high school in another country, in another language. The European universities? They’re more likely to just look at the numbers.”

With this in mind, she advises high school aged children moving abroad ideally go to a school that teaches in their native language. Even better, Americans eyeing competitive colleges in Europe should try to track to whatever high school path they started down before leaving the US. In other words, if your student has already taken a few AP classes, you find a private school offering AP classes. Finally, Viemont adds, an IB degree (International Baccalaureate) is a student’s golden ticket to anywhere. So, if your move abroad plans dovetail with an English speaking school offering the IB program, your student should have plenty of options.

Planning Your Family Move to Spain

Clearly, the differences between college in Europe vs America are extensive. I hope, in understanding them, they provide further food for thought as you weigh education in Spain for your move abroad.

I always stress one singular point to parents. There’s never one right answer. Believe me, I wish there were! The reality is, there’s no magic move your family to another country formula. What works for one family won’t be the right fit for another. In fact, even children within the same family might have very different needs to be successful in their expat setting.

This information also assumes you have the freedom to make the ideal choices for your kids’ education abroad. That’s not possible for all families in all situations. Sometimes, the best you can do is understand your child’s academic, emotional and social needs, and work with what you have.

Are you confused about education in Spain? Do you want support wading through education options for your school aged children? I can provide detailed info on state school, private school and concertado options in Spain. We can also discuss why you might make different decisions for your different children. Contact me for a Move to Spain consult.

For more information on colleges in Europe — whether you’re moving abroad in advance or not — visit BeyondtheStates.com.