Taking Kids Overseas Can Be Costly

Moving overseas for work is never easy, and it’s especially difficult for parents with school-age children. In many countries, the education system is inadequate or inaccessible to foreigners, leaving expatriate parents with little option but to enroll their kids in international schools.

This tends to be an expensive proposition, as tuition at international schools keeps climbing. According to a new survey by ExpatFinder.com, annual hikes in 2016 came in at an average of about 3.5 percent.

The most expensive locale for international education is China ($36,400 per year on average), followed by Switzerland ($28,300 per year) and Belgium ($27,800 per year), according to data compiled from 707 schools across 98 countries. Rounding out the top 10, all with international school fees averaging above $20,000, are the U.K., Hong Kong, United States, Singapore, Malaysia, Austria and Australia.

Faced with these high costs, expat parents are considering a range of alternatives to their children’s education, says ExpatFinder CEO Sébastien Deschamps. "For example, we see more and more parents considering options such as home schooling or enrolling their children in local schools that offer internationally recognized curriculum. Some have also opted for private tutors that provide supplementary native language lessons in lieu of costly international education," he said.

At the same time, employers are exploring new ways to reduce their expenditures on school fees without impacting the morale of their expat employees, John Rason, head of consulting services at U.K.-based Santa Fe Relocation Consulting Services, told Bloomberg BNA.

"The whole concept of a traditional assignment is changing," he said. "There still are organizations that have very big programs for traditional long-term assignees, and if someone is being hired for a long-term strategic assignment, these companies generally will not question the need to pay for school fees. However, more companies are now offering ‘flex-patriate’ benefit programs for expat employees who are in shorter-term or less senior roles, which means some benefits will still be mandatory, but the expat will have more discretion about which benefits they would like."

For example, a Spanish family moving to South America may forego language and cultural training and instead ask for a greater allowance for schooling. It is also becoming more common for companies to forego private school fees in countries where the local school system is strong. And for assignments in war-torn or emerging countries, employers sometimes prohibit employees from bringing their families as schooling will be extremely expensive or impractical.

In cases where employees already pay private tuition for their children’s education prior to taking an overseas assignment, employers won’t necessarily treat school fees as a new expense that must be covered as part of the expatriate package. In addition, an increasing number of employers are using the host country's local salaries as a benchmark for expat compensation, without including international education costs or other additional benefits.

However, such policies are rarely black and white, and employers usually give themselves plenty of leeway to consider factors relating to the location, position and employee. "I think companies won’t actually prejudice some of the core needs of a family, but what they will do is allow parents to make their own decisions about what is important for their family," Rason said.

The bottom line is that companies are looking at what trade-offs they can make with expats to try and empower them during their expat assignment, which ultimately should improve retention.

"If your expat employees are not engaged and happy in their new environment, they will feel alienated. And if they leave soon after returning from the assignment, all the money you spent on school fees will pale in comparison to the knowledge they will take with him when they leave," Rason said.

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