American Colleges vs. the World: Ranking 30 Countries by Costs and Results

Different countries view higher education differently. Some provide lavish government resources to students who study for free. Some offer grads sky-high earnings after graduation. Others help more of their population access school in the first place. How do U.S. students stack up against the rest of the world?

American Colleges vs. the World: Ranking 30 Countries by Costs and Results

Here’s a news flash: college in the U.S. is expensive.  Current student loan debt tops $1.76 trillion, the result of tuition price hikes that have ballooned 40% since 2007 alone and risen at 5 times the inflation rate since 1970. Nationally, the cost of college in the U.S. has dampened the overall economy, leading to lower homeownership rates and wealth accumulation among young adults than in past generations. 

The impact of all this debt on students and grads has led to political volleying about how the country should support students and whether pursuing higher education is worth the costs.

With student financial stress at an all-time high, we wanted to get honest about how other developed countries around the world support their college students during school and beyond.

In America, students know their costs are high. But higher education comes at a price, no matter where you earn your degree. We wanted to determine which countries have the best combination of low costs, government support, and future payoff. Simply put, where do students enjoy the best post-graduate lives for the lowest cost?

We compared the world’s developed countries to determine where home-grown students get the best deals.

Big Takeaways

  • Polish students have it the best in the world overall. They enjoy bargain prices, ample government support, and low future unemployment.

  • U.S. college grads find a degree grows their income most. The average 45 to 54-year-old American college grad earns double the country’s median income.

  • It’s expensive in the U.K. While 11 countries share the prize for the lowest tuition (where higher education is free), one country finished last. It’s the U.K., where the cost of a degree averages $12,255 per year.

  • To live on the cheap, students can’t beat Mexico. Its cost of living index is 25 out of 100. 

  • Norway has its students’ backs. With 92.2% of its tertiary education budget coming from public sources, it contributes more than any other country.

  • Lithuania is #1 in student success. More citizens here can get a degree and enjoy low unemployment and high salaries once they graduate.

  • Attainment isn’t everything: Among the top ten countries with the most graduates, just Finland finishes in the top ten overall. That shows that students aren’t taking advantage of strong educational support in their countries.

How We Did It

We started with the 38 high-earning democracies of the OECD. Omitting countries with too much missing data to be reliably sourced manually, we analyzed the 30 remaining countries on the following dimensions:

  • The average cost of tuition for a bachelor’s degree

  • Cost of living: The cost of living plus rent Index, plus local transportation and grocery cost indices

  • Public investment in higher education as a percent of total education spending and GDP

  • Higher education success rates: The percentage of degree-holding 25 to 64-year-olds, their unemployment rates compared to non-degree-holding citizens, and the increased earnings a degree afford them compared to high school graduates.

Overall findings

As more of the world’s top jobs require advanced training, more students worldwide are choosing a university education to launch them on their career journeys.

However, having more of its population earn a degree doesn’t necessarily mean a country got there by supporting students well. Of the top degree-holders, just Finland, with 49% of its women and 36% of men holding a bachelor’s degree, is on the top ten list of countries that score the biggest wins for their students overall. 

The reason might be that many cultures value educated graduates but not governmental support. That seems likely in the high-earning countries with high educational attainment rates (Finland loses in the brain game to Canada, Israel, South Korea, the U.S., and the U.K.). 

All these countries, except South Korea, are in the top ten for their higher education success scores. So while their costs are high, students who make it through stand to gain more from higher education.

That makes students sign up in record numbers, no matter the costs.

It seems that there’s still some truth to the idea that a college education can help these students reach their goals—if they can afford it.

That reality is particularly true in the U.S., which tops just one category—the amount grads earn compared to their fellow citizens who only finished high school. Both early in their careers and later, the wage gap remains. In fact, it gets slightly stronger over time as more grads find they can’t climb the corporate ladder unless they have a college degree.

Sadly, the U.K.’s high graduate success rates couldn’t guard against a last-place ranking. While the U.K.’s grads enjoy lower unemployment compared to most other countries (it comes in 7th with a 7.0 unemployment rate for degreed 25-34-year-olds), grads’ overall earnings aren’t that much higher than for those with a high school diploma (13 countries give their grads more of an income boost). 

And most importantly, its public expenditure on higher education as a percentage of education spending comes in dead last among developed nations. Add the current cost of living crisis and the highest annual tuition in our analysis, and the U.K. fails to save students any cash during their time in school.

Top 10 Ranking Countries


Topping the charts with free tuition and our 3rd lowest cost of living, Polish students can hit the books without their side hustles getting in the way. Students grab a bus for $0.93 and nosh on some potato dumplings, called pierogis, in between classes: the restaurant and grocery price indices rank best in the world. 

When they graduate, degree-holders enjoy low unemployment compared to other OECD countries, with just 7% of adults unemployed compared to the OECD average of 10%, and with a significant income boost. The only drawback? Poland has relatively low numbers of high school graduates taking advantage of the support. Only 28% of 25 to 64-year-olds have a Bachelor’s degree.


The educational prowess of this New-Jersey-sized nation came to light when documentary maker Michael Moore featured its universal free tuition in his 2015 Where to Invade Next, showing how Slovenian students successfully protested to keep education free. 

Today, Slovenia ranks 7th for the percentage of its educational budget devoted to higher education, keeping student costs low. And that investment pays off for graduates. They’re far less likely to be unemployed than in other countries and out-earn median-income workers by the 3rd largest ratio in the world.


With nominal average tuition fees of $598 annually and the lowest cost of living index among the OECD countries, Mexico offers students an affordable education with career benefits to match. Some of its tuition fees are more symbolic than practical (check out the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s $.01 tuition). 

Public investment is substantial. While Mexico spends less than most other countries per student, total higher education spending as a percentage of GDP falls in the middle of the pack. As a bonus, differences in higher education attainment by gender are just 2 points apart in Mexico (with only the U.K. and Luxembourg more equal).


Decadent chocolate croissants and Eiffel Tower views stand between France and educational affordability. With the #8 score for public investment and low tuition, France tumbles to 13th when accounting for students’ Western European cost of living. But students here don’t have much to complain about. At $230 a year, it’d take a French student 19 hours of minimum wage work to pay for a year of classes. And when they graduate, 25 to 34-year-olds earn 45% more than the country’s median wage, so their work pays off right from the start.


Estonia packs a one-two punch with free tuition and some of the lowest living costs in Europe. Estonians spend just $16,752 per student on higher education which amounts to a large chunk of the country’s GDP, making Estonia’s investment in education 13th overall. 

But Estonians don’t see as much bang for their buck. Graduates finish near the back of the pack for college success, with higher graduate unemployment than the OECD average and modest salary gains over median earners. By age 45-54, college graduates only earn 145% of the country’s median wage (their French counterparts made that much at 25 to 34 years old). 


Residents in the capital of Helsinki can see Estonia on a clear day. And though both countries are physically close and afford thor college students free tuition, the similarities end there. It’s much more expensive in Helsinki, where the cost of living score is 7th to last. 

Despite costs, 43% of citizens earn a valuable Bachelor’s Degree. It comes with lower future unemployment rates and a 20% earnings bonus right out of school. In fact, when we only look at the cost of a degree leveraged against future success, Finland comes out #1 in our analysis overall. 


With the second-highest government investment in higher education, Austrian students know their government values their education. But it doesn’t help student wallets: tuition is a middle-of-the-road $943 per year, putting it 14th overall. That’s still 37% less than the monthly minimum wage, leaving students with plenty of time to save for tuition and living expenses. And by the time grads are 45 to 54, they’re making nearly double the Austrian median salary, making Austria a model combination of cost and reward.


With tuition of $706.50 per year and unemployment among grads 3% lower than the OECD average, a degree in Belgium is a good investment. The government agrees, spending 84% of its public budget on education on higher ed. Yet, while degreed Belgians reap success in terms of job stability from a college degree, they don’t see as big a boost in income level. By the time they’re 45 to 54 years old, Belgians with a degree earn 53% above the median income, something they might be able to attain by that point in their journey regardless.


Lithuania takes home the category prize for academic success: it’s here that a college degree will get you farther than anywhere else. At 5%, it has the lowest unemployment rate among graduates. And on average, graduates earn 68% more than the country’s median, a third-place finish for new graduates straight out of school. But the costs are high. At $4,020 per year, tuition is nearly half the median annual income. So while the cost of living is low, students might find the reward at the end of their degree a little like a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow—a fantastic prize if you can reach it.


With more castles per capita than anywhere else, Slovakia’s central European fairy land oozes charm. It’s also known for low prices and earns a spot in the top 10 with its free tuition and rock-bottom cost of living. Students here won’t pay to study. Their $.97 bus tickets will get them around the capital of Bratislava. 

With restaurants 2nd to cheapest in our survey, they can put in long study hours, staying energized with local fried cheese and funnel cake. While graduates outearn non-grads, high unemployment puts a damper on student success later in life, when 13% of college grads find themselves unemployed.


It might seem contradictory that many countries where many citizens attend college have some of the highest costs. However, students in these countries must compete for the significant financial rewards that accompany a college degree. As a result, grads prosper, and college becomes more desirable. It also becomes even more unaffordable (sound familiar?). 

In countries with high government support and high social equality, the rewards of a degree aren’t as stark. Citizens can get ahead without paying the admission price, which keeps enrollment lower.

In the U.S. and similar countries, high rewards and high costs combine to make college seem like a requirement for life's success. While families struggle, borrowers cry, and national economies quake, college remains a holy grail for personal success.

In an ideal world, low costs and high rewards set students up for success. But that combination is rare, and government investment doesn’t make it more common. That’s because when many adults have bachelor’s degrees, college graduates can’t out-earn other grads.

The top countries find ways to lower costs while keeping rewards and support as high as possible. They strive to serve all who seek education, not just those who can afford admission. And as compensation, they get a thoughtful population ready to solve the problems they face.


We started with 38 OECD countries. For countries with missing tuition data we manually added figures from multiple data sources for countries with missing tuition data. Those countries are:

  • Luxembourg

  • Poland

  • Portugal

  • Greece

  • Slovakia

  • Mexico

  • Czechia

  • Slovenia

  • Costa Rica

Countries with too many missing data points in OECD data that were not included in this analysis were: 

  • Colombia

  • Turkey

  • Chile

  • Japan

  • Italy

  • Iceland

  • Switzerland

  • Costa Rica

Cost of Higher Education

Cost of Living

Government Investment in Higher Education

Higher Education Success Rate

Dr. Jessica Share

Author: Dr. Jessica Share

Featured Contributor

Dr. Jessica Share is a former academic with a Ph.D. in philosophy who loves researching issues in higher education and economics. Her writing specializes in data-driven storytelling for studies that bring new insights to the world.