Global Student Debt


By Jess Goulart

Photo courtesy of Dimitry B.

The grass is always greener–or in the case of a university education, cheaper.

The student loan crisis in the US is at an all time high. Horror stories abound of twenty-somethings who are tens of thousands of dollars in debt and still unemployed several years after graduating college. If you live in the States, you are probably intimately familiar with the direness of the situation, but here are a few choice facts:

As of 2013, the student loan debt topped $1 trillion.

The Huffington Post reported that “close to ten million broke and under-employed former students are trapped in debtor’s prison,” meaning they are denied credit and can’t eradicate their debt by declaring bankruptcy.

In the last five years, student loan debt has had an average growth comparable to mortgage debt levels at their peak, just before the recession hit.

Some American media outlets might be attempting to assuage youthful fears of incurring insurmountable education debt by claiming students in other countries face similar circumstances. For example, a recent article from The Atlantic explored student life in Sweden, a country where attending university is notoriously tuition-free. The article claimed that Swedish students still go into deficit because they take out private loans for living expenses while in school.

That may be true, but the average debt of a Swedish student is still around $6,000 less than that of an American student, and lest we forget, American students also have to borrow money for living expenses.

This is not the only article of its kind, so to further examine the issue, BTR talked with students from around the world. We found that, on the whole, other countries have public university systems that are far more financially feasible than those in the US.


German Universities are reputedly cheap. One semester’s tuition is 500 EUR and parents are required by law to fund their children’s education through their first degree from a university.

Janne Erdfrau graduated from University in Cologne in 2010 with a degree in the German language.

“My parents did not want to support me because they said I was a lazy one and should better do a practical education, but I really wanted to study the German language,” she tells BTR. “I went to a lawyer [and in the end] they paid what they had to: several hundred bucks per month.”

Erdfrau says she worked for everything else, including rent and living expenses, but is debt free along with most of her friends. Germany is divided into 16 federal states, each with their own financial reserve for aiding low-income families with education. Some areas don’t have tuition fees, but if a student attends a university that does and their parents can’t afford it, the state will lend them interest free money which they then have to pay back after they begin earning their own.

Because living expenses can be steep, particularly in cities like Munich and Hamburg, it’s common for students to live at home or in university housing when possible. If desperate, a private bank loan is an option.

“I don’t know people who did it though,” Erdfrau concludes. “Most got supported without any problems [from] their parents. A lot get support [from] the state that they pay back later. And nearly everybody I know is working next to studying.”

The Netherlands

Like in Germany, Dutch universities are supported by the state so they are not dependent on private funding. Students are given a monthly stipend of at least 80 EUR to cover their tuition and some of their living costs, which increases based on parental income. Total tuition costs are around 600-1000 EUR a semester, and students can then borrow from the state additionally if necessary.

Universities in the Netherlands are typically far away from residential areas, making a long train commute necessary for the majority of students. To help with those costs, they are given free transportation cards and, if they are lucky enough to be close enough to bike to school, that amount is added to their monthly living allowance.

Rosanne Salome is a graduate of a Dutch University of Applied Science (the equivalent of a two-year program in the States). While studying, she received around 450 EUR per month as a “gift” for tuition and living expenses.

“Most people I know don’t have a debt. I have almost nothing,” she tells BTR. “Like 3000 Euros, from when I didn’t have a job for a while.”

She herself lived at home throughout her studies, and most of her friends did as well, so living expenses were minimal.

Salome notes that Holland is trying to change the policy so that only the 80 EUR is available for free and anything else must be paid back, “because students are getting lazy and changing studies a lot without finishing anything.”

If they do borrow, students don’t have to start paying it back until two years after graduation, and at a sliding scale based on their income.


Haimin Weng received his BA in China, followed by his MA at the Technical University of Munich and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. He tells BTR that tuition and fees are much cheaper in China, as compared to Western countries, even for law and medicine schools.

“In China,” he says, “most higher education is paid for by a student’s family, though there are scholarships and student aid available for low-income households. Student aid is for impoverished students, and no need to pay back. A few families borrow money from their friends and relatives for study, and they pay back the loans after they finished their study.”

Weng himself had his education fully funded by his parents, including the higher cost of living in Singapore and Germany. He doesn’t know any friends who worked while also in school, because low labor costs make it essentially pointless.

As Weng himself epitomizes, the Chinese as a whole place great emphasis on studying abroad, particularly at the American Ivy League schools. The tendency for Chinese families to happily fund their children’s overseas education is well documented. Jiang Xueqin, the deputy principal of Peking University High School, one of China’s premier schools, told The New York Times that parents typically spend their lives saving for their children’s higher education, especially if they obeyed the state’s single child rule. Thus, private loans for Chinese students are virtually unheard of.


The cost of living in Australia is extremely high, but so are the wages. Tuition is fairly expensive, about 7,500 Australian dollars a year, although government student loans are available and common.

Nathan Rooke, an Australian native currently studying in Germany, tells BTR Australian students aren’t required to pay back their loans until they start earning wages, the amount of which changes every year. For 2014-2015, it’s $53,325 Australian. That’s well above minimum wage and there’s no interest on the loan. In fact, Rooke didn’t seem to understand what “interest” was.

“Plus,” he says, “if you move away from Australia to another country after you get your degree, you don’t have to pay it back at all. Unless you move back to Australia. Then you have to start paying it back.”

Like the other students BTR spoke with, Rooke considers it atypical to live away from home during college, and the idea of living “on-campus” is completely foreign. He says occasionally students get a shared apartment together, but because rent is so expensive that is rare.

Reform to the Australian student loan system is currently in a heated debate. The government is attempting to raise tuition costs and lower the required salary income at which graduates must begin paying back loans. If passed, the reforms are predicted to increase the average years of repayment from 14 to 28, creating a situation that officials are warning will look deplorably similar to the crisis in the States.

The Good News

Honestly, there isn’t much. US student loan debt is fast becoming notorious and some reformists say there’s no way out besides civil disobedience.

It is perhaps worth mentioning that because US universities are so expensive, their programs are some of the best. More importantly, they consistently have reliable tools at the ready to aid their students’ learning, and in a world where multimedia skills are heavily valued, access to these kinds of advantages is maybe a worthwhile sacrifice for a lifetime of debt.

Or maybe not.