You recently turned 17 or 18 and are wondering what to study, where, and how you can finance it without ending up in a mountain of debt (if applicable)?
I did too (minus the debt part since studying is cheap in Belgium).
But instead of asking and looking for information myself, I dove into the first degree that looked easy and interesting enough and never looked back.
Today, I thoroughly regret that choice. Unfortunately, I see every day dozens of students ready to make this mistake because they don’t know any better. As such, I want to offer you some guidance so you can avoid the mistakes I have made.
If you don’t know whether you should study at university, read this post first.
Assuming you want to study, we will answer three different questions in this post:
- What should you study at university?
- Where should you study?
- How to finance your studies and how to study for free?
We’ll take a “value perspective”, meaning we won’t look at what you should study “because you find it interesting”. We’ll look at what you should study to ease the job hunting process and maximize value creation.
Choosing studies is a difficult activity that will have a long-lasting impact on your life.
One should read this article with a critical mind.
I wrote this post as if I was talking to a close friend or a sibling, based on my experience. It is not a “universal guide”, because everyone’s situation is different. HOWEVER, if one is completely lost regarding higher education, I think (and hope) this post can serve as a bit of guidance.
This is a post I wish I had read when I was 18.
To give a bit of background, I have studied economic sciences for one year in the French-speaking part of Belgium before failing, then I studied a bachelor in communication and media in the Netherlands for three years, went on exchange to France in a political science university, and studied two masters in a Flemish Belgian university, one in business economics, and one in political science and EU studies.
I also worked as an ambassador for my university during which I had to learn about all the programs that were taught and this is how I learned about the content and skills taught in other programs.
1. What to Study
This question can only be answered by you as it all comes down to what you want to do with your life. In this regard, you don’t have many options. There are really two ways to earn money through active income:
- Entrepreneurship: you become a freelancer or create a company.
- You get a job: be it for the government or in a private company.
Choosing option one would mean you better learn practical skills to create products that solve problems. Essentially, these are found within the STEM field. Engineers and computer scientists are trained to solve problems, which makes these bachelors an excellent starting point for entrepreneurs.
Choosing option two means you better choose a degree that will give you sought-after skills. If I look at the situation in Belgium currently, insurance brokers, real estate agents, software developers, butchers, electricians, electromechanical technicians, plumbers, nurses, carpenters…are degrees guaranteed to give you a job after you finished studying, on top of the STEM field.
Should you study what you like?
It depends on the value you can deliver with your hobbies. If your hobby is 15th-century history, there is little chance that you get to find a job after graduating. Furthermore, history is something you can study by yourself. If you are going to go to university, might as well earn skills that will enable you to deliver some real added value to society.
I made the catastrophic decision to study communication, for example. Not only did I learn nothing, but I also wasted three years of my life learning nothing while I could have become a software developer during that time instead.
I thoroughly regret it. Studying communication was one of the worst mistakes of my life.
So if your passion is software engineering, then by all means, go study it. If your passion is sociology, try to study something else.
There is nothing you can’t learn by yourself. My perception is that one should study something useful, but there is nothing that says you can’t study something useless and gain other skills by yourself. As such, I once met a guy who had study sociology and learned how to code by himself. He now works as a freelance software developer.
At the end of the day, your life is what you make of it. Whatever you decide, always keep in mind that this society is based on value. You’ll get a job if you can solve valuable problems.
Art history does not teach you to solve valuable problems.
2. Where Should You Study?
I am a value-driven guy. I always buy stuff that gives me the best ratio price/quality.
As such, I don’t think you should pay to study when you can study for free.
As such, unless you can score an Ivy League university (and even then, I don’t know if the price is worth it), I wouldn’t study in the US if you need to borrow money, because it directly restricts your choices once you graduate.
I would instead study in the EU, where universities are still excellent, much cheaper, and where you can be financially independent by having a student job.
“But Auré, I only speak English, how can I study in a foreign country then?”.
When it comes to language barriers, you have two choices:
1. You don’t learn the local language and choose an English-taught bachelor (not recommended). More and more business and IT programs are taught in English.
2. You learn the local language and study a local-language-taught bachelor.
I recommend the second option because learning a new language is awesome! It helps with brain plasticity, it opens a whole new world of meaning, and it is an achievement you can genuinely feel proud of.
But is it possible to learn a language then go study in this language at university?
In a word: yes.
Some time ago, I’ve met two 20-year-old Russian girls that had moved to the Czech Republic because they didn’t want to stay in Russia. The Czech Republic is a rather friendly country for Russians visa-wise, so it is full of Russian students escaping their country.
Since they couldn’t speak a word of Czech when they arrived, they spent the first year taking Czech classes and worked in local bars and restaurants.
After one year, they were fluent in Czech and entered university.
They got jobs working in Czech companies in Czech and in a couple of years, will be Czech citizens.
This is great and this is something I did myself (although not with Czech).
After living a year in Australia to learn English, I’ve entered university in the Netherlands and studied in English, which now prevents me from “proving” I speak decent English when applying for jobs.
Learning a foreign language never is a waste of time and really expands your capacity to understand the world.
When I went to Valencia to learn some Spanish, I studied with a bunch of Chinese students, which puzzled me.
Why the hell were Chinese learning Spanish?
I went to ask and they told me they had moved to Spain to study there.
Since most of the study programs were in Spanish, they were spending a year studying Spanish first.
Smart, I thought.
If Chinese can learn Spanish in a year, one year should be more than enough for you too to learn pretty much any language, which will be a priceless skill for the rest of your life.
It will be difficult, but no one said studying debt-free was easy.
As my mum would say, “if it was easy, everyone would do it”.
When it comes to which country you should study in, I can’t really tell you because it depends on the program you want to study, the university, your financial means, etc.
However, if I was 17 or 18, knowing what I know now, I would go study in Poland, Spain, Hungary, Lithuania, or Estonia. These countries are amazing, the education is cheap and high-quality, and the parties are the best. Student jobs are easy to find, and there are many international students and Erasmus to hang out with.
I also suggest you fly and go visit the university, see the atmosphere. Don’t attend open days. They don’t represent the reality on campus.
3. What About Tuition Fees?
Most EU universities will make you pay more if you don’t have an EU passport, but it’ll never be higher than €10 000 per year (for bachelors, some masters are more expensive).
In the Netherlands for example, non-EU people paid €6000 while EU people paid €2000.
Obviously, some programs are often more expensive for non-EU people when taught in English, but you’ll never see in Europe something like $40 000 per year, that simply doesn’t exist (except for MBAs).
4. How Do I Finance my Studies and How to Study for Free?
A lot of students have the chance to have their parents financially supporting them. Otherwise, you get a job.
I am not aware of any EU countries where student jobs don’t exist (except for Italy).
In most cases, a student job will be enough to finance your life.
Universities also help students with low financial means, and if you’re lucky, you can always ask your parents to give you $100 or $200 a month to pay for food.
In the worst-case scenario, you can always borrow money to finance food/rent while working on the side, but that probably won’t be needed as you can easily live with 1000€/month in any EU city.
I personally spend 700€/month in Brussels, all included, but I’m also a cheap f*ck.
I have up to this date, never met any European that had to borrow money to study because no other solution had worked out.
Some countries also propose programs where students go to school half a week and work for a company the other half, like Germany for example. The company pays a small salary and the studies of the student. They also often end up hiring them in the end.
The Bottom Line
If there is one thing I want you to remember, this is the following: you don’t need to study in your home country, you don’t need to borrow astronomical sums, and you don’t need to study in your native language.
The world is your playground. You can study anything anywhere for much cheaper than what you’d pay in the US/Australia/etc.
In my case, being an international student wasn’t easy every day, but I have learned a lot, met a lot of different people, and it expanded my comfort zone up to the point that by the time I was 20, I had no problems with the perspective to move anywhere in the world.
The only thing I regret was my degree and the country where I studied it, but well, I won’t go back in time.
I hope this guide has clarified some questions regarding studies. I hope you’ll now do the work to choose well your degree and the country where you’d like to study it.