College Costs: How the US Stacks Up to Other Countries

Glass jar full of US coins and a "COLLEGE" label on a table with books and paper currency.
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It is well-known that the cost of college has been increasing in the U.S., typically much faster than inflation. Although the rate of inflation has been higher recently, it tends to be around 2%. Conversely, the cost of college has increased about 8% per year, doubling the cost every nine years.

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Read: Can You Afford Education in America at These Prices?

Although the increase in cost has been slowing, it still outpaces inflation in the U.S. With some countries offering free college, you might think the U.S. is uniquely expensive. And while the cost is higher than in most other countries, America is not the only country with a five-figure price tag.

In this article, we will take a look at just how the United States compares to other countries when it comes to spending on college. You might be surprised to find out the US is not the most expensive country in the world.

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Cost To Attend College in the US

For students in the U.S., there are several different options for attending college, all of which can affect the cost. They can attend in-state or out-of-state as well as public or private universities. Here is how the costs break down for different types of colleges and universities, according to College Board:

  • Community college average cost (tuition & fees): $3,770
  • Public 4-year college average cost (in-state, tuition & fees): $10,560
  • Private, nonprofit 4-year college average cost (tuition & fees): $37,650

Community colleges are significantly less expensive than even public universities in the U.S. Of course, this doesn’t include financial aid, grants and scholarships. Still, community college is an affordable option, and the cost has also risen more slowly than the cost to attend a public college.

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Cost To Attend College in Other Countries

Discussions about college often revolve around the idea that European countries have free tuition for everyone. While that is true, the real picture is more complicated. For instance, several European countries such as Finland and Denmark have free tuition, but only for students from the European Union.

European Union

Among European countries, Norway is one of the few that doesn’t charge tuition, whether students are from the European Union or elsewhere. However, Norway has a high cost of living, with only Switzerland and Bermuda being more expensive. Germany, too, has free tuition for all students, regardless of their country of origin.

Other European countries have free tuition for those from the EU, but not for those from outside the EU. That can be said for Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Greece. Although Sweden is free for European students, it is especially expensive for those from outside the EU, with a price tag as high as $35,000 per year for tuition and fees. Even on the low end, tuition is over $9,000. Finland is much cheaper for those from outside the EU, starting at around $1,700.

In France and Austria, tuition is not free but is low-cost.

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Mexico and South America

Europe tends to get all of the attention when it comes to free college, but in Mexico and South America, tuition can be very affordable or even free. In Brazil, there is usually a cost, but the price is not incredibly high. Tuition is as low as $378 per year in Mexico, and in Brazil, tuition is free at public universities.

In Uraguay and Argentina, tuition is free, but only for those who are from those countries.

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UK and Australia

If you are from the U.S. and looking for an affordable undergraduate program, the United Kingdom and Australia will probably not be the answer. Both have college costs that can be even higher than the cost of college in the U.S., depending on the school and program.

In the U.K., the cost of an undergraduate degree is $17,000 to $25,000 per year, and in Australia, the cost is $15,000 to $33,000 per year. In the U.K., scholarships are available that can cover a small part of the cost — between $2,500 and $10,500. The Australian government also offers several scholarships that can offset some of the costs.

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Last updated: Aug. 10, 2021

About the Author

Bob Haegele is a personal finance writer who specializes in topics such as investing, banking, credit cards, and real estate. His work has been featured on The Ladders, The Good Men Project, and Small Biz Daily. He also co-runs Modest Money and is a dog sitter and walker.

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