Stay Local for Free, or Go Overseas and Fight to Pay? Calculating the ROI

For anyone in the same dilemma as me, I hope this post can show you the options we have to tackle this. The idea is to think about the problem in many different ways, then see which option ‘wins’ in each round, or what new ideas you’ve gotten.

But first, we need to define the problem.

Here’s my dilemma. Or, trilemma. Since I want to start on a Bachelor’s this year, I’ve been applying to schools.

Currently, these are my options:

1. Stay local on a scholarship

I managed to get a very, very good scholarship to a local university. For the subject I’m pursuing, our ranking isn’t that bad, either. With this, I wouldn’t have to worry about money at all. I can focus on other projects, like starting clubs and my studies. It’ll be a burden off my parents, too.

But the idea of studying abroad tempts me and tempts me and tempts me. Singapore can feel stifling sometimes when I see on the internet all the things happening elsewhere. And I want to go far, far away from my parents. I want to be challenged and scared and stretched. I want to try things and grow and become independent.

The grass is always greener on the other side, eh?

2. Go overseas on a scholarship

I’ve yet to hear back from my options on this one, so I wouldn’t know. I guess this choice splits into two:

2a. Bonded scholarships

A full ride, but you’re obligated to work for the sponsor for six years. Some people don’t mind this much, but to me six years is a long time. I’m not ready to lock in my future, I think. I’ll consider this more seriously if I get a scholarship.

2b. Bond-free scholarships

We’ll see about this. I’m still waiting on financial aid replies and scholarship responses. There are also small bond-free scholarships that can offset the cost of overseas education by about 25%.

3. Go overseas on my parents’ money

Likely supplemented by 2b as well. My parents have said they can afford it, but I think it’ll be uncomfortable. I don’t want them to have one more thing to stress about. There’s a sibling to fund too, after all. Plus, we need some money in case of emergency.

What are the options that you have? List them down in writing so that you can compare them better.

Steps in my Decision

1. Decide How Much Time I Want to Spend Thinking About this Decision

The time should be proportional to the period of my life it influences. Let’s put that influence at 4 years, since I’ll probably spend that amount of time in university. Let’s say I spend 5% of that time deciding on where I’m going. 4 years is 1461 days. 5% would be 73.05 days. When I started thinking about this decision, I only had about 30 ish days left to work on it. Oops. Well, at least I know it’s not analysis paralysis. 😝

Conclusion: I should spend a lot of time thinking about this! Either way, I enjoy the mental exercise. Things may be different for you, depending on your commitments. Set a good percentage/timeframe, and go.

2. Talk to (and Listen to) People

I’ve been reading Celestine’s article on making the hardest decisions in life. Since university relates to career, I’ve read career guides for social impact. I’ve read Cal Newport’s biggest piece of career advice, which still applies when making decisions. I’ve been talking to people: anyone who would listen, and who faced such a problem too. People who are still in university, people who’ve graduated. My friends gave me contacts to other people who had the dilemma as well.

Since then I’ve seen other options. I could defer and take a gap year to get enough money to fund my studies. I could try again for the schools I’ve missed, the scholarships I’ve missed, and earn money too. Another particularly memorable conversation about funding a US education had opened my eyes: it was possible with enough grit and determination. I could take out loans, work part-time, negotiate my merit awards. I could aim a little lower for a higher chance of paying for all of this.

It ultimately depends on how badly I want an overseas education. Or, should I even go to university at all?

Conclusion: There are many paths to Rome. Talking to people would likely help you find new solutions to the problem, too. Bear in mind that sometimes the information may be outdated, or you could be speaking to an outlier. (E.g. I spoke to someone who got a full ride to a really good US school. Will that happen to me? Nah.)

3. Count the Benefits

I’ve also been calculating. Since the cost of an overseas university is about 4x or more as compared to my fees as a Singaporean, an overseas university needs to deliver 4x or more the value to me. Does that make sense? University is an investment, and I want to make sure the investment is worth it.

To do this calculation, I looked at the opportunities I have here, versus the ones I have overseas. The main advantage of an overseas education (to me) is the independence I’d get, and perhaps the connections. Let’s tackle these two things:

a. Independence

I’d be living in school, either way. Independence overseas would mean extra things:

– Finding my own house
– A job, perhaps
– Fixing issues that my parents are smoothing over for me
– Opening a foreign bank account, paying my own way through college
– Figuring out a new place
– Learning how to use the washing machine (heh)

But, how much more independent will this make me? These things will come sooner or later with adulthood, too. I think at most I’d grow 1.5x more, because I could always pretend I didn’t have a safety net even in Singapore either. I’m already doing this now (kinda).

b. Connections

Some say that connections are a much, much better way to get a great job. Who will be my profs? Any ones with research interest the same as mine? Who will be my classmates? Will they motivate me to achieve my best?

More importantly, will I get my dream job in the future? I don’t think I can in Singapore, simply because climate change is not high on the agenda (for now). I don’t know what exactly I want to do, but I want to do climate-related stuff, and more opportunities seem to be in the US or the UK. Then again, with Trump and Brexit posing as big distractions, my ideal jobs may be hard to get there.

That aside, I used PayScale to look at the median pay (in USD) between Singapore and overseas for a non-dream job in my degree. The pay overseas was better, but definitely not 4x more:

SG: $31,693
UK: $38,157
US: $63,457

The US value was notable. Twice! That’s really impressive. But still not 4x the value (or more, since I’ll be in the expensive US).

Besides, I could always work overseas later as well.

Conclusion: With an optimistic estimate, going overseas would give me about 1.5 * 2 = 3x the value.

A caveat: I’m not sure if these little advantages, accumulated, will give me big earning (or impact) differences in the future. I think it might.

Now, what about you? How much is the difference in cost? What are the things you want to get out of university, and will going overseas give you ___x the return on those things?

4. Count the Losses

I’m a believer that our actions shouldn’t be driven by fear, because we’d be stuck in our comfort zone if we’re always fearing things. I’d much rather base my life on what I hope it’ll be like.

However, there is always risk involved. I applied the concept of bets, inspired by Little Bets and reframed the question. How much can I afford to bet on the different paths?

If I stay local, I’m betting with 4 years of my life that I’ll do equally well in Singapore and overseas.

If I go overseas, I’m betting either:
i. with 6 years of my life (if I go for a bonded scholarship), or
ii. a large chunk of my parents’ savings, or
iii. a huge amount of mental energy dedicated to finances
that I’ll do much, much better overseas than locally.

The savings took my parents 20 years to build. I can’t blow it all away in just 4 years.

Conclusion: staying local would be a safer bet, for me. What would your bets be? How much can you afford to lose, and how likely are you going to lose it?

5. Consider blind spots

I tend to use my head more than my heart. What does my heart want? I don’t know anymore. Somehow, staying local still feels like I’m settling even though all the calculations work out. It’s like Taylor Swift’s That’s the Way I Loved You[lyrics link]. Do I want a simple, content life, the one that is “right” and “perfect”? Do I want a more exciting but risky life? And why can’t I still have both, anywhere I am?

I think a lot of this a fear of missing out. Will I miss out on opportunities? Will I miss that magical undergrad experience? Will I miss being happier? Perhaps I need to learn to be content with what I have. Perhaps I should stay local just to show myself that I can do what I want anywhere I am.

I also have a hard time grappling with the fact that my different paths are just, well, different. Not better, not worse. Who do I want to be in the future? I do think going overseas is important to me, but do I have to do it this way, and do I have to do it now? I can always stay local first. If I really hate it, then I can reapply the next year.

Beyond that, how much value-add can a college give me, anyway? I don’t succeed because I went to this or that place. Sure, I need luck and opportunity, but a large part depends on my efforts. Once I matriculate, I’ll make sure I squeeze the most out of wherever I go. I won’t look back.

Conclusion: Hmmmmmm. Figure out your blind spots, and adjust your thinking accordingly.

6. Get Perspective

And finally: I’m thankful. I’m thankful that I’m privileged enough to have excellent options to choose between. I’m thankful that I’ve met so many wonderful people who’ve advised me and spent hours with me just talking about this issue. I’m thankful I have the mental bandwidth to think so hard about this. I’m thankful that, no matter where I end up, I’ve already won the birth lottery. I’m incredibly lucky to be born in Singapore, and to be born now.

Counting my blessings has helped me be less anxious about this whole debacle and take a broader view. If you’re agonising over this, perhaps listing down what you’re already grateful for would calm you down too.

Right now, at this point in time, the future is nebulous and the paths twist and turn. I’m still waiting for more information as I apply for ever-more scholarships. But that’s okay. I’ll be fine, whatever I decide in the end. You, too.


2 thoughts on “Stay Local for Free, or Go Overseas and Fight to Pay? Calculating the ROI

  1. Thanks for the link, Jia. This is great.

    I’d say whatever you do, try to avoid debt and commitments (so no bonded scholarships). Your goals and interests will grow, change and become more developed as you go through the next few years of your life.

    Being firmly locked into something can reduce your options as opportunities become available to you.

    Regarding moving overseas — US universities are ridiculously expensive but don’t offer a much better return for the money. If you’re looking for the best value, something local seems to make more sense.

    You can still travel during the summers or take a gap year to get 80% of the overseas experience without the commitments that come with being a full time student in the US.

    Instead of having your parents drop a ton of money on a US education, I would work with them to put together a small budget from a portion of the savings for some independent travel and an independent project or business you’d like to build — you’ll get FAR more value out of this than a US degree will give.


    1. Hi Derek, thanks for the comment! Was pleasantly surprised with the well thought out answer 🙂 I also really admire the unconventional path you’ve taken! Two main things keeping me from staying local:

      1. Do you think the experience of living four years in a different country is worth the cost, though? Travel would be different from really building a life in a place. More specifically, I’m thinking about the UK and it’s around 114,000 USD for the tuition fees for four years, so it’s not as atrocious as the US. Thoughts?

      2. Does the value argument still hold if my overseas option is a top “prestigious” school? It’d be way easier for me to get a job overseas if I had a more internationally-recognised name on my resume. Would this ease be worth the money, or should I spend it on other stuff? I did consider the options you’ve suggested before too.

      Have a good weekend!


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