Belgian Students Coming to America
Unlike most of her classmates, law student Marijke Spooren wasn’t worrying about finding a job when graduating from the University of Leuven last year. Her dilemma was of a slightly different kind: “Should I be going to NYU, Berkeley or the University of Chicago next year?” she asked herself before making up her mind for the Windy City. Ms. Spooren is part of a growing number of Belgians that choose to do their graduate studies in the United States. In four year’s time, the presence of Belgian students has increased by almost a third. Last year, 904 Belgians were enrolled in American universities, up from 703 in 2007.
Why has the U.S. suddenly become the place to be for Belgian students? “There is what I call an ‘Obamaeffect’ happening” says Margaret Nicholson, Executive Director of the Commission for Educational Exchange (C.E.E.) between the U.S., Belgium and Luxembourg. “Obama brought in a breath of fresh air and renewed interest in the United States from Europe,” she says. From 2001 to 2007, when George Bush was president, the Belgian presence dropped from 881 to 704. “His presidency was not a great success among Europeans,” Ms. Nicholson says, “Obama is a lot more popular.”
Aside from the ‘Obama-effect’, the quality of education, the good career perspectives and the excellent reputation of American institutions play a role for Belgians to come study in the U.S. “The level of the education here is outstanding,” says Joris Van Gool, a Belgian studying at Harvard Business School. Small classes, interactive methods and a hands-on approach make the experience different than in most schools in Belgium. “Here, you’re forced to think, not just to reproduce,” says Marijke Spooren, “what a difference with my previous studies, where learning the text book by heart was often good enough to pass.”
A second advantage of studying in the U.S. is what Mr. Van Gool calls “the platform of chances” you get from studying at the best American schools. “The network of international contacts, the excellent job prospects, it’s very hard to find this anywhere else in the world,” he says. Indeed, the average alumnus of the Harvard Business School earns about $170,000 a year, according to the Financial Times. For other top business schools like Wharton ($176,000), Columbia ($163,000), Stanford ($183,000) or MIT ($158,000) the figures are comparable. For Vlerick, Belgium’s best ranked business school, the average alumni salary of $105,000 is up to 40% lower than that of its U.S. counterparts. In other professions, the financial advantage of a U.S. education is harder to track. But according to Philippe Serverius, who earned a Masters of Laws (LLM) from Columbia University in 2000, the advantage in law firms is similar. “Without an LLM you have practically no chance of becoming a partner at any American or British law firm,” Mr. Serverius says, “It is simply a must.”
To obtain an American degree, Mr. Van Gool and his colleagues are willing to pay a lot of money. Tuition fees of
$50,000 to $70,000 are not uncommon these days in the U.S. But Ms. Nicholson confirms the tuition at American schools is in line with the benefits that come with them. “We know from experience that studies in the U.S. definitely pay off,” Ms. Nicholson says, “especially in the fields of business, law and sciences.” In that case, Ms. Spooren (LLM) and Mr. Van Gool (Master of Business Administration [MBA]) made the right choice of studies. The three universities that accepted Ms. Spooren, all are firmly in the top 10 for LLM studies in the U.S., according to the U.S. News and World ranking. For his MBA, Mr. Van Gool only considered Harvard and Stanford, whose MBA ranked 3rd and 5th worldwide according to the Financial Times.
For studies like literature and philosophy the international rankings are similar, but the financial career benefits
are less attractive, says Ms. Nicholson. Yet some Belgians pursue these studies in the U.S. as well.
“I love being in New York and studying at an Ivy League school,” says Barbara Vinck, who is working on a Masters in Latin and Greek at Columbia University, “But I might have debt to repay during five or ten years for doing so.” Nonetheless, Ms. Vinck is happy about her choice. “Some other people my age are also indebted but for other reasons. At least I got fun and a great experience out of it,” she says. To help Belgian students like Ms. Vinck, some organizations offer financial support for studies in the U.S. The Belgian American Educational Foundation (B.A.E.F.) grants about 50 students up to $50,000. The C.E.E. of Ms. Nicholson awards another 50 so-called “Fulbright” scholarships of around $25,000. Rotary, the Fernand Lazard Foundation and other benefactors also
offer loans or scholarships.
The aid received from these organizations is crucial to many of the Belgian students. “There is no way I could have come here without the BAEF aid,” says Ms. Vinck, “It would have been impossible.” In spite of their career perspectives, Mr. Van Gool and Ms. Spooren share that same opinion. “Without the support from BAEF, I would probably have had to work a couple of years before being able to come here,” says Ms. Spooren. Mr. Van Gool says he might not have come if he hadn’t been accepted by a top school.
Yet some Belgians even value the American education without a grant or loan. Guillaume Kroll, a graduate from the University of Liège, came to New York to do a Master of Global Affairs at NYU. “It’s a big investment,” Mr. Kroll says, “and knowing that I owe my parents money puts a lot of pressure on me.” The reputation of American schools made him decide it was worthwhile anyway. “Even the best schools from Europe are not known in the U.S. But my diploma from the U.S. will be recognized anywhere in the world.”
So what does the future bring for these bright young minds? With their American diplomas in hand, the sky is the limit for the young Belgians in the U.S. “I’d love to go and travel to teach Latin and Greek all around the world,” Ms. Vinck says, “China, Russia, I see myself living in all of those countries now that I enjoy an Ivy League education.” “I won’t go back to Belgium,” Mr. Kroll says, “with my diploma; it is easier to stay here.” But not everyone thinks that is a good idea. “My grandparents don’t really understand what I’m doing here,” Mr. Kroll continues, “They say we have everything we need in Belgium.”
Peter Vanham is a Belgian free lance journalist and commercial engineer. He’s currently enrolled at the Graduate School of Journalism of Columbia University, doing a Master in Business and Economics.