Design by Mellisa Lee. Buy this photo.

The high price tag on an American college education is one of the largest financial obstacles facing young people and families today. According to a 2016 Office for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) study on higher education spending, the U.S. spends more than any other country besides Luxembourg on education per student. This brings into question whether students are getting more out of college due to the higher cost.

The average tuition cost and student loan debt are higher than they ever have been, with tuition at $46,950 for nonprofit private universities and $36,420 for out-of-state tuition at public universities. Tuition is now twice the cost it was in 1980. This is partly due to the increase in demand for college, as the career opportunity gap for those with a bachelor’s degree versus those with just a high school diploma has widened. Other factors include increased student services such as counseling and health care, increased professor salaries, increased financial aid programming and decreased state funding. 

Meanwhile, because higher education is highly subsidized by European governments, the cost of a university degree in Europe usually ranges from zero to a few thousand dollars. However, the differences between an education in Europe and the U.S. don’t end at price. Both the education and academic experience are vastly different. However, the higher price of an American bachelor’s degree does not guarantee a better experience. 

One of the most notable differences is that U.S. universities tend to offer a wider breadth of general education programs and attempt to expose students to multiple fields, while European universities force students to apply to specific programs that they spend all their college years focusing on.

According to Zara Comerford, a senior at Strathclyde University in Glasgow, Scotland, “If a student wants to change what they are studying, they usually have to drop out and reapply.” There are still ways for European students to change paths and studies, Comerford explained: “Choosing a business degree provided me with a wide scope of subjects and options at Strathclyde University. It gave students the option to try many classes and choose what to specialize in.” However, the classes that she explored were still related to business; this contrasts with many American universities, which require students to fulfill distribution requirements in a variety of academic areas.

Another central difference between the U.S. and European college experience is the social life. Audronė Račkauskienė, head of the international studies office at Kaunas University of Technology in Lithuania, explained in an email to U.S. News that “European universities especially in North-Eastern part of Europe do provide the possibility of accommodation on campus, however, there is no strong campus culture, so students typically tend to integrate more with city life.”

It is common for U.S. students to admit that part of what they are paying tuition for is the college experience. Universities in the U.S. are known for their unique college partying style, in part due to the fact that the drinking age in the U.S. is 21, so students find ways to party outside of bars and clubs. 

Comerford noted that “the Scottish nightlife in Glasgow is very fun and sociable with a large drinking and partying culture. The large difference I see within American universities is the Greek Life system and sports events such as tailgating for football games.” She also mentioned that she is involved in multiple student organizations, including a ski and hockey club that have socials and events. While universities outside the U.S. might not have frat parties or the tailgating culture of many big American sports schools, there are European universities that offer a social life through clubs and city life.

From my research, it seems that a European degree is in some ways similar to a U.S. Master’s degree. While it may not offer the breadth and undergraduate partying experience of an American school, European universities prepare students better for the workforce right out of college. So are Americans getting more bang for their buck? 

80% of American college students change their major at least once. Therefore, it does seem that the U.S. system of breadth makes more sense for allowing students to really find their passions than deciding before they attend college. However, European students may leave college more prepared for the workforce with much less student debt and college financial obstacles. Both education systems could benefit from adapting elements of each other. 

Lizzy Peppercorn is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at