How Bachelor’s Degrees in the U.S. and Europe Differ

As a prospective undergraduate student, Pakistani national Huzaifa Islam Shah applied to more than 20 schools in the U.S., a few in Turkey and several in the United Kingdom. He says he received acceptances and scholarship offers from European schools like the University of Glasgow, the University of Sheffield and Cardiff University but ultimately chose to attend the University of Northern Iowa in the U.S.

“UNI has a good reputation in the Midwestern region for its quality education, a lot of opportunities and peaceful campus environment,” says Shah, who graduated with a Bachelor of Science in chemistry in May 2019. He is planning to apply for a master’s degree in biology at the same school.

Choosing to pursue an undergraduate degree in the U.S. or in Europe can be a tough decision, but understanding key differences can help. Here are some factors for prospective international students to consider about how bachelor’s degree programs in the U.S. and Europe differ:

— Length of time and cost

— Majors

— Type of schools and programs

— Campus life

Length of Time and Cost

One factor to weigh when comparing higher education in Europe vs. the U.S. is how long it takes to get a degree. U.S. universities tend to offer breadth, requiring general education courses and exposing students to a variety of fields, while most European universities offer depth, focusing on a specific area of study.

“Students who are pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Europe can typically complete their degree in a very specific subject in three years, whereas a US degree is completed over the course of four years and offer a bit more of flexibility,” Markus Mandl, chief marketing officer at Hult International Business School, wrote in an email. Hult, which has both undergraduate and graduate programs, has campuses in Boston, San Francisco and London that offer the Bachelor of Business Administration degree.

But not all U.S. bachelor’s degrees take four years. Some can be fast-tracked through summer courses and college credits earned in high school, such as for Advanced Placement, or AP, exam scores, allowing students to earn a bachelor’s in less than four years. Conversely, students may take longer than four years to graduate “due to changing or adding majors, unexpected issues or opportunities such as research or studying abroad,” says Kristi Marchesani, director of international recruitment and admissions at the University of Northern Iowa.

The length of the degree also raises the issue of costs, which can vary widely when comparing U.S. universities to European schools.

For example, the tuition and fees for international undergraduate students at the University of Northern Iowa are $19,480 for 2020-2021, while the University of California–Berkeley charges $47,602 for the same year, according to the school’s website.

As for Europe, “Public universities in Germany are effectively tuition-free, even world-class institutions like TU Munich. France costs about 3,000 USD per year for bachelor’s and 4,000 for master’s programmes,” Gerrit Bruno Blöss, founder and CEO of, a website that helps students find universities in Europe, wrote in an email.

[Read: 4 Things to Know About Attending a Tuition-Free University in Europe.]


There are also differences when it comes to choosing a major at U.S. and European universities.

“The U.S. offers students a great amount of flexibility and freedom. While new students will still identify a field of interest, most bachelor’s programs include general education courses, which give students both time and opportunity to explore different fields and confirm their commitment to a specific major,” Marchesani says.

Shah says he was grateful for the extra time.

“Studying in a college with an undeclared major allows you to grow and learn parallel to making a lifelong career decision,” Shah says. “It gives a smooth transitioning period where you can see the world and then decide what you want to do rather than decide before and regret later.”

Marchesani says while students at U.S. schools may diversify their program by adding an additional major or minors, at most European universities, “students have to apply to a specific degree program and start immediately into this area of study.”

[Read: 3 Questions for International Students to Ask About Majors at European Universities.]

That worked well for Indian national Neel Rajendrakumar Patel, who knew he wanted to pursue a Bachelor of Business Administration. He graduated with a BBA in 2019 from the American Business School of Paris and is currently in the school’s MBA program.

Patel says his undergraduate program made him well-versed in areas like accounting, business and consumer law, e-commerce, global supply chains, import/export, trade and taxation. And he feels both programs have helped him prepare for “career opportunities on the international scene in the field of management, digital marketing, corporate finance and trade.”

Type of Schools and Programs

Both the U.S. and Europe have higher education institutions with long histories. But as international students compare their options, they’ll notice differences in the type of schools and programs offered. The U.S., for example, has hundreds of liberal arts colleges, while Europe has only a few.

“Many students who look at programs in the U.S. are attracted to the wide diversity in types of institutions. In the U.S., students can study at large public research institutions, small private liberal arts institutions, urban or rural institutions,” says Cheryl Matherly, vice president and vice provost for international affairs at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.

In one popular European destination, the U.K., students will find universities that have strong links with business and industry and that are located across four nations, from city centers to the Highlands of Scotland, says Michael Peak, senior education advisor at the British Council. U.K. universities offer programs on a range of subjects and niche specialties, he says. Another bonus is that the shorter course duration reduces the cost of study and provides an opportunity to enter graduate courses or the job market earlier, he says.

Experts say there may not be many English-taught programs in Europe, so prospective international students should be aware they might have to learn the native language.

Patel, whose undergraduate program was taught entirely in English, says studying in France has given him the opportunity to learn French not only from books or classroom interactions with other students but also through exposure to the language in everyday life.

[Read: Weigh the Pros, Cons of Earning a Bachelor’s Degree in Europe.]

Campus Life

Finally, when comparing getting a bachelor’s degree in the U.S. vs. Europe, prospective international students should also consider differences in campus life.

“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,” Audron? Ra?kauskien?, head of the international studies office at Kaunas University of Technology in Lithuania, wrote in an email.

Blöss says especially in continental Europe, there are very few universities where all or most activities are concentrated on one campus location, and students rarely live directly on campus. He says that student housing is widely available and is close to the campus but can be located anywhere in the city, and university departments may also be located at different parts of the city.

“For example the University of Hamburg has one large central campus but various departments scattered across the city. This also means students may have to travel between lectures, and that’s quite typical in Europe,” he says.

In contrast, Matherly says U.S. higher education typically features a robust campus life, often centered around residence halls, college sports, fraternities, sororities and clubs. She says students “develop a strong identity with their campus community and most of their social life will be based on campus.”

Amy Hall, assistant director of international recruitment and admissions at Kansas State University, says with the added benefit of access to hundreds of on-campus resources ranging from academic success and international student services to student housing support and career services, “U.S. universities have paved the way for students to set themselves up for success while studying in the U.S. and beyond into their professional careers.”

Any discussion of campus life naturally includes the issue of safety. Mats Engblom, marketing specialist at the University of Helsinki, says for parents who might worry about the safety of their child, a European city might feel like a safer choice. For example, he notes that the capitals of Nordic countries are among the safest capitals in the world. On top of that, he says students might find a higher-ranked university with a much lower tuition.

“In the end, it of course comes down to that the student needs to find a suitable program for him/her,” Engblom wrote in an email. “And if you want to live in the US and have that experience, then a couple of years in Helsinki probably won’t feel like the right choice for you no matter how good the education is and vice versa.”

See the complete rankings of the Best Global Universities.

More from U.S. News

A Checklist for Earning a Degree Abroad

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3 Reasons to Consider Canada for Undergraduate, Graduate Degrees

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