NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Outsource Your Kid

February 2, 2012

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.  There is a simple answer to such concerns: Shop around for a better deal.  The world offers some incredible bargains for quality tertiary education, says Charles Kenny, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development.

Of course, just because it is cheaper doesn't mean it's necessarily a better value.  What matters is the cost to quality equation.  Global university rankings, like those from Shanghai University, Britain's Times Higher Education Supplement, and Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), are hardly free of controversy.  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.

That said, 99 percent of U.S. college applicants don't have a great shot at Harvard and MIT.  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.
  • Institutions like the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil and Fudan University in China both rank above renowned establishments like George Washington University in Washington, D.C., or Notre Dame in Indiana.
  • 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.

American high school kids would 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.

Source: Charles Kenny, "Outsource Your Kid," Foreign Policy, January 31, 2012.

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