One of the most vexing issues facing tens of millions of American families at present is the exorbitant cost of higher education.  Surprisingly, it didn’t feature very much in last year’s presidential election.  Cynics might say that Democrats are reluctant to spend much time on the issue because well-paid college and university academics and administrators are among their most strident activists and generous donors.  On the flip side, those same cynics might say that Republicans’ blind faith in market forces and the fact that high tuitions aren’t much of an issue for their wealthy base make it less important for them.  With respect to both parties, the cynics would have a point.

The issue remains, however.  Tuitions in the US, especially at elite private colleges and universities, have always been high, but what has happened in the past twenty years has bordered on the incomprehensible.  My alma mater, the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts – which thousands and thousands of Irish-Americans from throughout New England, New York and New Jersey and elsewhere have attended over the years and which remains one of America’s highest ranked liberal arts colleges – is a case in point.  Holy Cross is an outstanding school and I am proud to be a graduate.

Yet when I was a senior there in academic year 1995-1996, tuition, including room and board, was $26,500.  In academic year 2013-2014, tuition, including room and board, will be $56,232.  In less than twenty years, the annual cost of a Holy Cross education has more than doubled!  And as Americans will immediately vouch, incomes certainly have not increased by that amount since the mid-1990s.

Lest any readers, fellow alumni in particular, think I am singling Holy Cross out for criticism, this trend is mirrored at just about all of the private colleges and universities in the northeast US where Irish-Americans have flocked to historically in large numbers.  Moreover, while institutions like Holy Cross are in a financial position to offer many qualified students generous aid packages, others are not, and students must assume a huge debt burden to get an undergraduate degree.  Either way, the cost of a private college or university education is extremely expensive in the US.  Public colleges and universities are cheaper, yet aren’t as prestigious in most instances and they are becoming more costly every year.  Most parents in the US accept the grim reality of the situation and scrimp, save and go into debt themselves to give their children the best education they possibly can.

The many parents of high-school aged children whom I’ve met in Ireland are astonished when I tell them the relatively miniscule costs of higher education here.  Irish students must pay an annual registration fee of just €2,500 for an undergraduate course of study.  Although that figure does not cover room and board, it is a pittance compared to what American families would expect to pay for a year of higher education at either a public or private institution.  On hearing these details, Irish-American parents lament that it’s so much harder to afford in the US and that they can’t avail of this system.

The reality, however, is that Irish universities encourage and welcome applicants from countries outside of the European Union (EU).  There are seven universities – Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin, Dublin City University, the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Cork, the University of Limerick and the National University of Ireland, Galway, where I teach in the law school – that span the length and breadth of this country.  All the universities have their own individual strengths and attributes, as well as their own well-organized, geographically diverse alumni networks.

The fees for non-EU students, while more expensive than for EU students who have fulfilled the residency requirement (to qualify for the above rate, EU citizens must have been resident in a member state for 3 of the preceding 5 years), are much cheaper than most private colleges and universities in the US.  By way of example, the annual fee for most undergraduate courses at NUI Galway for non-EU students is €12,750 ($16,580).  Taking into account room, board, travel and other expenses, the annual cost of sending an American student to an Irish university is between $30,000 and $35,000.

That, of course, is substantially less than the $50,000 or more now charged by most elite private colleges and universities in the US.  And when one takes into account the fact that a majority of the undergraduate degrees here take three, not four, years to complete, the final cost of an undergraduate university education in Ireland could be less than half of what it would be in the US.

This is not just a dollars and cents argument, though.  Most American high school students tend to have a rather insular view of the world.  I can say that because I once was one.  Attending university outside of the US, and well outside of their comfort zone, is sure to be a mind-opening and empowering experience.  A degree from an Irish university can also help distinguish job applicants as they embark upon careers in a difficult climate and in an increasingly globalized world.  Additionally, an Irish undergraduate degree opens the door to relatively inexpensive postgraduate study in Ireland or elsewhere in Europe; renders expensive postgraduate study back in the US less burdensome in the end; and creates a greater possibility of living and working in Europe in the future.

Pursuing a university degree in Ireland is not for all, or even for a large number of, American high school students.  A lot will stick with traditional semester or year abroad programmes if they do cross the Atlantic.  But for some, in particular for Irish-Americans with strong ties to this country, it is an avenue definitely worth considering.  So as Irish-American families with children in high school celebrate St. Patrick’s Day this weekend back in the US, I hope some adventurous students will think about it and look at the various options online.  And I hope their parents think about how nice it would be to spend a future St. Patrick’s Day in Galway, Dublin, Limerick or Cork visiting their son or daughter studying for a degree at an Irish university.