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Study Abroad at Universities in New Zealand and Australia

U.S. students discover the benefits of going to New Zealand and Australia for bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D.s degrees overseas

For Ben Earwicker, the road to a Ph.D. in Latin American studies keeps passing through New Zealand, even though the small island nation is some 7,000 miles from the Mayan cultural focus of his research.

The 28-year-old assistant professor at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, Idaho, first went to New Zealand in 2003 to complete a 1-year master’s degree in international studies at the University of Otago in Dunedin through U.S. program provider AustraLearn / AsiaLearn / EuroLearn.

This year, despite being accepted to two U.S. doctoral programs, he decided to return again to New Zealand to complete a 3-year Ph.D., also at Otago.

Earwicker’s research and writing is focused on the struggles between the Mayan and non-Mayan groups in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.

“These are, by and large, marginalized groups,” he says.

He hopes his work will result in models for tourism projects or development initiatives.

“I want to apply my research to situations that will make life better for the Mayan people,” he says.

In weighing his decision to stay in the United States or go overseas to earn two advanced degrees, Earwicker compared institutional quality, academic reputation, tuition and living costs, program length, caliber of faculty and degree transferability.

New Zealand, especially with its offering of domestic tuition rates for first-time international Ph.D. enrollees, came out on top.

“It made sense financially,” says Earwicker, who is now living in New Zealand with his wife, Michelle, a master’s student at Otago. “It made sense academically. It came at a time in our lives when we could just pack up and go.”

Many Students Unaware of Degree Abroad Options

In going beyond the boundaries of his home country to chase his passion and further his academic credentials, Earwicker exemplifies the growing possibilities for students willing to explore degrees abroad, whether a bachelor’s, master’s, professional or Ph.D.

“Many students want to study abroad during their college years, but when it comes to the idea of getting a degree abroad, most haven’t even considered it,” says Jennifer Flannery, manager of U.S. group relations for AustraLearn / AsiaLearn / EuroLearn, the North American contact for students and advisors exploring the degree options at eight universities in New Zealand and 25 in Australia.

The typical student who considers a degree abroad often has some international travel experience, is searching out a particular program of interest, or wants to achieve a blend of educational and personal growth through exposure to another country and culture, Flannery says.

“It is a different type of student who thinks about this avenue in the first place,” she says.

Most people assume North American students seeking degrees abroad study only the obvious subjects of international relations, languages and international business. In reality, they study in all subject areas, Flannery says, including arts, sciences, business, humanities, social sciences, environmental studies and tourism, as well as for professional degrees in veterinary science, law and teaching.

Of the degree students who come through AustraLearn’s doors, about 74% are getting post-graduate degrees, and of those, Ph.D.s make up about 2%, Flannery says. The remaining 26% are earning bachelor’s degrees, a growing area of interest.

With college costs rising, prospective degree students are very interested in how domestic costs compare with those at institutions abroad, Flannery says.

“For Americans, community college and in-state schools are most affordable, and that’s exactly why we have those options,” she says. “But students considering out-of-state or private schools for a bachelor’s degree will find the cost of earning degree in Australia and New Zealand overall is less given the shorter degree length of three years.”

In the United States, average annual costs for tuition and fees are $16,640 at an out-of-state public 4-year college and $23,712 at a private 4-year institution, according to the College Board’s 2007-2008 pricing trends.

By comparison, average annual costs for 2007 tuition in Australia and New Zealand (fees data in these countries is not typically grouped with tuition figures but don’t significantly increase costs) were about $14,700 for bachelor’s programs, according to AustraLearn data.

Roughly speaking, that translates to $44,100 in tuition for a bachelor’s degree from Australia or New Zealand vs. $66,560 for tuition and fees for a bachelor’s degree from an out-of-state public 4-year institution in the United States. 

And when it comes to graduate programs in Australia and New Zealand, Flannery says, “tuition is often less than what you will find here, and the Stafford and PLUS loan amounts make it very doable.”

Australia Program Attracts Top U.S. Student

Chantelle Driever, a 23-year-old graduate of Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, is a biomedical engineering graduate now working on a Ph.D. in biomaterials at the University of Melbourne in Victoria, Australia, with scholarships paying her tuition and living expenses.

“I don’t think people even really consider it,” Driever says of earning a degree abroad. “It probably has a lot to do with the American culture to think the American education system is the best education system. People tend not to question.”

Driever initially sought to study abroad in Australia because she felt passionate about the country. As a result, she managed to line up a research co-op for a few months with the Commonwealth Scientific Industrial and Research Organization, a highly regarded government research organization.

“People don’t typically—especially for the science and engineering degrees—usually look outside the U.S.,” she says.

After her co-op, she returned to the United States to complete her degree at Case Western in 2007.

This year, she decided to return to Australia to begin the 3-year Ph.D. program at Melbourne.

“I’m actually working on nanoparticles for drug delivery,” she says, “so it’s very cutting edge.”

Among her reasons for choosing the program was its 3-year time frame.

“In the U.S., a Ph.D. can last a few million years,” she says.

Just because the program finishes in less time doesn’t mean it isn’t of high quality, Driever says. “In Australia and in my field, they’re very well known for biomedical engineering,” she says. “I, in particular, have some really good people I’m working with that are well known in the field.”

Driever believes her Australian Ph.D. will leave her well suited if she wants to come back to the United States and work.

“I’m sure I will be able to find a position, especially within the field I’ve been researching,” she says.

Jim Reis, president and chief executive officer of the World Trade Center Denver, an international business resource, says there is no simple answer to the question of how the U.S. marketplace reacts to a degree from abroad.

“A degree from a foreign institution certainly brings another dimension to a young person’s background and resume,” he says, “but has its best value when it complements business or industry experience.”

For Driever, just living abroad has helped her grow as a person.

“My whole personality and my whole take on life have changed,” she says. “It’s awesome, and it’s been such a good experience in so many ways.”

She thinks employers will recognize her choice as a sign of strength.

“I think people are really very interested to see someone who’s taken a chance to do something,” she says. “It’s a really good show of the character of the person.”

New Zealand: Small Country, Big Incentives

When it comes to attracting more students like Driever and Earwicker, New Zealand, in particular, dangles a major carrot.

That carrot is domestic tuition rates for international Ph.D. candidates of most academic categories - a major savings over international rates.

For Earwicker, the tuition benefit means he pays $3,000-$4,000 (US) vs. $14,000 (US) annually. By comparison, the U.S. programs he considered carried annual tuition price tags of about $24,000.

New Zealand made the policy change in part to stay internationally competitive in a knowledge community, said Mike Woods, North American Education Counselor for the New Zealand Ministry of Education.

Ph.D. enrollments from North America, for example, are up 163% since the program’s 2006 inception.

Further sweetening the pot, New Zealand allows the spouses of international students to seek employment and provides free schooling to children ages 5 to 18.

“We also needed to increase support from our institutions to ensure reasonable completion times and a vibrant research environment for doctoral students,” Woods says. “The policy change seems to be achieving these goals.”

Before he decided on New Zealand, Earwicker examined how the program at the University of Otago stacked up against his U.S. options.

“I was concerned about whether the degree would be recognized in the U.S. and Europe, so I was looking specifically for programs up to standards here in the United States and Europe,” he said.

New Zealand and Australia both have great track records, he says. As he focused on New Zealand, he found the resources surprising.

“The library, the research - it’s all really top notch,” he says.

Otago’s program seemed unique and multidisciplinary, with faculty from around the world who bring truly international perspectives on issues.

“It seemed to offer something I couldn’t find elsewhere,” Earwicker says.

He also looked at the time commitment. The doctoral program at the University of Otago is three years, which was a much more definitive end when compared to the fuzzier timelines of U.S. doctoral programs.

“It is similar in terms of rigor to a U.S. degree, but with it being research-based, you don’t have the course work,” he says, “and it’s a lot more independent.”

A major concern for Earwicker was how his degree would be perceived in the United States.

“I like the idea of having a U.S. Ph.D.,” he says, “but on all accounts the New Zealand Ph.D. is just as valuable to me.”

Once he chose the New Zealand program, Earwicker and his wife faced the tasks of moving and dealing with finances and work arrangements.

“To get that tuition benefit, we’ve had to move here,” he says. “I’ve worked it out with my university where I’m still employed by the university, taking a year of leave, and am committed to teach for another three years at a minimum when I get back.”

Earwicker recommends anyone considering a similar experience to examine costs.

During their first time living in New Zealand, the Earwickers found the cost of living in some areas, such as food, to be similar to the United States but higher in certain areas because of imported goods. A tube of mascara, for example, set back Michelle Earwicker more than $10.

Before they left the U.S., the Earwickers also had to find someone to rent their house in Idaho. Via the Internet, they manage their accounts and finances from afar.

“Even with property and commitments,” Earwicker says, “it’s still possible to study abroad.”

IIE Survey Shows Foreign Institutions Putting More U.S. Degree Students on Wish List

Degree programs abroad are by no means a new entrée on the growing menu of international education options.

If foreign institutions had their druthers, however, degree programs would be a house specialty rather than just an entree, according to a white paper released earlier this year by the Institute of International Education, a U.S. higher education exchange agency.

Although more than 223,000 U.S. students study abroad for academic credit, the majority do so via programs of a year, semester or less, with the largest growth happening in short-term programs of eight weeks or less,

If the current 8-10% annual growth rate in U.S. students studying abroad continues, roughly 550,000 U.S. students will be studying abroad in 2017.

The growth raises a number of questions, including where the additional U.S. students will go to study, and for how long.

IIE set out to get some answers to those questions, so in late 2007 surveyed more than 500 higher education institutions from different parts of the world about their capacity for hosting more international students.

It reported its findings in a May 2008 white paper titled “Exploring Host Country Capacity for Increasing U.S. Study Abroad.” The responses showed exchange agreements and degree study to be the two largest potential growth areas for increased international student enrollment.

“This presents a potential supply-demand conflict,” the report says, “as most U.S. students tend to study abroad for shorter durations.”

Specifically, 81% of responding institutions cited “exchange agreements” and almost three fourths named “degree study.”

“A growing number of U.S. students considering study abroad may in the future also consider full degrees earned abroad,” the report says, “responding to vigorous efforts of institutions to attract them and the financial incentive to earn a degree abroad where cost may be considerably less.”

For most responding universities, the United States was a top choice for sources of international students, with motivating factors including a general mission of internationalization, an exchange of knowledge and culture through personal interaction, joint research opportunities, and the financial incentives of additional enrollments, especially for institutions with declining domestic student enrollments.

In Australia, government, for example, has supported a policy of internationalization of higher education with $1.3 billion in inbound and outbound scholarships, according to the Australian Government Endeavor Awards Scholarship web site.

New Zealand and Australia now have government policies allowing international students to extend their visas to stay and work in country.

In the United States, there is general agreement in the importance of producing more globally aware students, yet many challenges exist in raising U.S. enrollments at foreign universities, the report says. They include the devaluation of the U.S. dollar, problems with credit transfer to American university systems and American perceptions that international institutions cannot match U.S. education quality.