Studying abroad has historically been viewed as an opportunity only available to wealthy students. This narrative is changing, however, as many American colleges and universities are pushing for their students to have the opportunity for a cross-cultural experience. Unfortunately, changing such a stereotype takes time, and many American college and university students aren’t aware of all the ways to fund their study abroad experiences. Funding study abroad isn’t as painful as you might imagine, you just need to know what to look for and how to choose the best study abroad program for you!
I went to an undergraduate institution, Susquehanna University, that required all students to have a cross-cultural experience. This specific terminology was used, “cross-cultural experience” rather than “study abroad experience”, because not all programs that fulfilled the requirement were located outside of the United States. With that being said, the large majority of these experiences are located internationally, and for me, they were in Aix-en-Provence, France, and Prague, Czech Republic. I was incredibly fortunate that my undergraduate institution was so invested in having essentially all of their students study abroad for some length of time because I had nearly unlimited resources available to me when I was selecting my study abroad programs, including a plethora of information about ways to fund my experience. Now that I work in the field of international education, however, I can see that not all students either have the resources available to them, or actively seek out those resources in order to fully understand the opportunities available to them.
Based on my experience, many students don’t seek out those resources because they believe that they will just simply not be able to study abroad. The most common reasons that I hear include:
- “Studying abroad won’t fit into my schedule, I’m a member of ____ (a sorority/fraternity, athletics, student organizations, etc.)”
- “I won’t be able to get the credits I’ll need when I’m abroad so that I can complete my degree on time”
- “Studying abroad is too expensive”
I address the first two points on this page of my blog, and may dedicate further posts to these topics in the future. A good academic advisor who supports studying abroad will be able to help you find courses you can take while you’re abroad that will contribute to your degree program (PLEASE don’t take all of your gen-eds during your first semester Freshman year! Save those for your semester abroad!). That academic advisor, however, will likely not be able to help you fund your study abroad experience, and this is the single greatest factor that is holding back American students from experiences that will transform their lives. I’ve been working in the field since 2011, and I’ve been consistently amazed by how many opportunities exist to fund study abroad experiences, and even more so at how many are continuing to be developed. So, with an insider’s perspective, here are the best ways to fund a study abroad experience for all university students:
Figure out how long you want to study abroad for.
Your first inclination here may be to say, “a short-term summer program must be cheaper than a semester-length program, I’ll just go for the summer!” But this is where you’re probably wrong, my friend. Depending on your home institution’s policies regarding tuition billing, it’s probably cheaper for you to study abroad for an entire semester or year than it would be to study for just a few weeks during the summer. Many universities will charge you your home tuition fee, including all financial aid and scholarships, if you study abroad for a semester or year of your degree program. This means that you’d be billed as usual for your home university’s tuition, so what you pay in terms of your university fees will be the same (or less if you’re able to find additional scholarships to cover other expenses).
As this is the case at a lot of institutions, your first visit once you arrive to college as a freshman should be to your study abroad office to find out how their fee process works. If the process is the one that I’ve described, then you know you can count on paying the same tuition whether you’re studying at your home campus or in your host country!
So what if your university doesn’t do this? Does that mean that you’ll be paying your tuition on top of your study abroad fees? In most cases, no. Some universities have you pay your tuition directly to the host program or institution abroad, and this can work out to be cheaper than your home university’s tuition (hello, outrageously expensive US college tuition!). The only downside to this is that it often means you cannot apply your home university’s scholarships and financial aid to your study abroad semester. This is a question for your university’s financial aid office- sometimes they can make it work!
Pro-tip: it’s possible that the tuition at your host institution will be significantly lower than that at your home institution, so some students will take a “semester off” or a leave of absence to study abroad in order to pay that lower tuition rate for a semester or a year.*
*Keep in mind that this can have credit transfer implications, as well as potential loss of scholarships/financial aid, so it’s very important you know exactly how this process works before deciding to go this route.
Determine which program is the best fit for you.
This might seem like it isn’t at all cost-related, but it truly is, and it’s probably one of the biggest mistakes many university students make when deciding to study abroad. As studying abroad becomes wildly more popular with American students, more and more programs, organizations, and companies are popping up all over the world to offer “the experience of a lifetime” to university students. As with the price tag of many US institutions, the prices of these programs vary greatly, and are constantly increasing along with the number of services that the company/program offers.
Once you’ve decided to study abroad, the first step is figure out which programs are already recognized by your home institution. In general, there are four different types of study abroad programs: exchange, direct enroll, third-party “island” program, or a hybrid. As these are all terms you’re likely not familiar with if you don’t work in the field, I’ll explain what you can expect from each, especially because the costs associated with each type can be very different:
Exchange: It’s likely that your home university will have some exchange agreements in place, which means that you pay your home university’s tuition, and then you exchange with a student from the host institution (where they pay their tuition). Universities arrange these because it means that no one typically pays a large program fee. Exchange programs are also typically the most immersive option in terms of study abroad experiences. Usually when you participate in an exchange program, you don’t have extra components included in your study abroad experiences that you’ve likely seen advertised to you, such as weekend trips, housing, dinners, 24-hour emergency support, etc. These things aren’t included for you because you’re enrolling at your host institution as if you were a local student, and while the international office at your host institution will probably offer some student support, you won’t be guided along your experience as you might be with some other study abroad programs. This doesn’t mean that exchange programs are bad! Exchange programs often offer you the best opportunity for immersing yourself in the local culture, meeting local students, and having a great study abroad experience with the most economical price tag.
The biggest question to ask when choosing to study on exchange is the price of housing; if exchange students at your host institution are responsible for finding their own housing, you’ll want to know if someone will be available to help you find that housing, and how much you can expect to pay per month or per semester.
Direct Enroll: This means enrolling- you guessed it!- directly at a foreign university. There is a large variety of direct enrollment programs available; some direct enroll options are similar to exchange programs in that you’re treated exactly like a local student with the assistance of the international office, while others offer you more in order to enhance your study abroad experience (like the one I work at- Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic). For example, some direct enrollment programs will offer a more comprehensive orientation period, and may even offer dedicated pre-departure assistance like visa advising. Some direct enrollment programs may also offer emergency assistance and housing, or at least assistance in finding appropriate housing.
Direct enrollment programs are a great option, especially when your home university doesn’t have exchange agreements in cities where you’d like to study. These programs allow you to immerse yourself into the local culture and university community, while still providing you with some additional support that you might not see on an exchange program. Because these programs are actually facilitated by the host institutions rather than by companies, they’re often less expensive than other study abroad program options, but may offer very similar services. If having some of those services (24-hour support, trips and activities, etc.) is important to you, this might be a good, low-cost option to look at depending on which country you’re planning to study in.
Third-Party Program Provider, or “Island” Program: These third-party programs are a big thing in the study abroad industry, and for seemingly good reason. They are typically companies and organizations that have offices in both the US and the host city/country, giving you non-time zone restricted access to (usually) American staff before, during, and after your program. Further, third-party programs typically offer a wide range of activities to keep you busy throughout your entire experience, some of which will be included in the fees that you pay. A third-party program is usually referred to as an “island” program, because the students participating in the program are often on a metaphorical island in their host country. These programs have centers or buildings dedicated to their activities, classes, and staff where their students spend much of their time, and depending on the program, can have less interaction with local students than you might find in exchange or direct enrollment programs. Many US college students choose these programs because they offer a lot, including a sense of security (for both the student, parent, and home university). In fact, when you study abroad with a third-party program provider, you’re often provided with essentially everything that you need to have an incredible semester abroad, so it really is no surprise that some of these providers have hundreds to thousands of students enrolling each semester.
With all that being said, some third-party programs do an excellent job at immersing their students into the local culture, but it can be tough to figure out which programs offer this from a cursory internet search. One big signal for knowing that a third-party program offers an immersive experience is where they offer their classes. If the only classes that you’ll be able to take are run by the provider at their own center or building, it’s likely that you’ll be taking classes exclusively with other American students. Conversely, if some or all of the courses available through a given provider are held at an actual local university, you’ll have a much greater chance of either taking classes with local students, or at least sharing facilities like libraries and cafeterias with local students, meaning that you’ll have a chance to interact with them. Third-party providers that offer courses at a local institution are often referred to as “hybrid” programs, because they’re somewhere between an island and direct enrollment option.
Find your perfect location.
All of these tips about choosing the right program for you are great, but if you choose to the most expensive city in the world to study in (I’m lookin’ at you, London), you’ll be spending a lot of money to study abroad. Some study abroad locations are inherently less expensive than others, and this is largely based on the cost of living in those countries.
The most obvious expense that depends largely on local prices is your housing. If your university bills you for your tuition, which remains the same as it is at home, you’ll probably still be responsible for paying your room and board either to your provider, your host institution, or to local landlords. It’s possible that your home university will still pay these fees for you on your behalf if they have an agreement with that foreign institution, but you’ll still be billed for that amount (instead of what you would pay for room and board at home). This means that if you choose to study abroad in a city where housing is very inexpensive, it’s possible that you’ll pay less for housing for the semester than you would at home. This is especially true if you find local housing within the city rather than relying on accommodation designed specifically for foreign students. For example, it’s possible to find a room in a flat-share in Prague (where you have one room in a multi-room apartment with other students) for 5-8,000 CZK per month, which is between $200 and $350 USD per month. I’m willing to bet that this is a fair bit lower than many American students are currently paying for housing at their home institutions. Of course, this requires some work on your end to find appropriate accommodation (and to make sure that your visa documents are in order, if necessary), but it also often means that you’re truly immersing yourself into the local community by living like an actual local student.
Another factor to consider when choosing your host country is what type of visa you’ll be getting, and if you’ll be allowed to work part time on that visa. If so, you can pick up a part-time job while you’re abroad to subsidize your expenses. Working part-time in your host country is also a great way to immerse yourself into the local culture and community, so it’s a double benefit if it’s allowed based on your visa!
Cost of living in your host city also impacts how much you’ll spend on day-to-day expenses like transportation, groceries, eating out, going to bars, etc., so it’s incredibly important that you do a lot of research into what your host city will actually cost you in terms of your own cost of living. And if you’re in to traveling while you’re studying abroad? Be sure to factor in how expensive it is to travel to and from the city/country where you’ll be living!
Go to your study abroad office.
The study abroad office at your home campus should be your best resource for determining the programs available to you, and the associated costs. Some universities allow students to study only at universities or with programs that they either pre-approve or have agreements with, while some allow you to study at “unapproved” programs (programs that they haven’t pre-approved) only after you’ve paid an additional admin fee. Of course, this means added expense if you happen to choose a program or university that hasn’t been approved by your host institution, so it’s important that you know what they’ll accept before you start submitting applications. Studying abroad with a program or university that’s been pre-approved also means that getting credits transferred back home will be easier, so in most cases I encourage you to go that route.
It’s also possible that your study abroad office or home university will charge you a fee to study abroad. The fee is often billed as a study abroad fee, or an admin fee, and it allows the home university to confirm that a student does intend to study abroad (sort of like a deposit). This is especially true if your home university is billing you for your program fees, and is then paying your program or host university directly, as they will be liable for your cancellation fee if you drop out after a certain time. In any case, it’s important to know if you’ll be charged an additional fee, and how much that fee is so that you can budget it in.
Apply for scholarships.
Now that you know all the ins and outs of studying abroad and the various options to do so, you’re well-equipped to choose a program and location that will be a best-fit for your academic, financial, and experiential needs. But what if this isn’t enough? You found the perfect program, and after the international flight, housing, and local metro ticket, it’s still going to be too expensive to study abroad.
There are a ton of scholarships and grants available to help you! Because there are so many scholarships and grants out there, many of which are very subject or location-specific, this will require some research, but this research can really pay off if you find the right funding source. Here are some suggestions for specific scholarships, as well as some places to start your scholarship research process:
- Check with your home university. Some universities offer special scholarships and funding resources to help students fund their study abroad programs. Check to see if your university offers any, and if you qualify. Remember to also meet with your financial aid officer to discuss how your financial aid and/or scholarships will be applied to your semester abroad!
- Check with your host university or program. Many program providers like CIEE, AIFS, IFSA-Butler, IES Abroad, CEA, USAC, SIT, and more offer scholarships for students participating on their programs. Some host universities offer scholarships as well, so it’s worth checking to see if you’re applicable for any of those.
- Boren Scholarship. Boren Scholarships, an initiative of the National Security Education Program, provide unique funding opportunities for U.S. undergraduate students to study less commonly taught languages in world regions critical to U.S. interests, and underrepresented in study abroad. There is a specific list of countries that qualify for this funding, and students who receive this scholarship must agree to work for least one year for the federal government in a national security field. This prestigious scholarship is a perfect opportunity for a student who is already planning on working in national security, and needs funding for their study abroad experience.
- Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program. The U.S. Department of State’s Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship is a grant program that enables students of limited financial means to study or intern abroad. The Gilman Scholarship Program is open to U.S. citizen undergraduate students who are receiving Federal Pell Grant funding at a two-year or four-year college or university to participate in study and intern abroad programs worldwide.
- Generation Study Abroad. Generation Study Abroad is an initiative, launched in 2014, of the Institute of International Education (IIE) to mobilize resources and commitments with the goal of doubling the number of U.S. students studying abroad by the end of the decade. As such, IIE has developed a lot of great resources for U.S. students to find ways to make studying abroad obtainable, one of which is studyabroadfunding.org. This site has hundreds of listings of scholarships and grants, which are searchable by keyword, field of study, and location.
- Diversity Abroad. Diversity Abroad is the leading international organization which connects diverse students, recent graduates and young professionals with international study, intern, teach, volunteer, degree and job opportunities. They have a database of scholarships that is definitely worth a browse if you’re a minority, first generation, or low income student.
- Host Country Education Abroad Initiatives. Many foreign countries offer scholarships to encourage foreign students to complete some or all of their degree in that country. Others offer databases full of scholarships and grants that are applicable for study in that country. Examples include Education in Ireland, Study in Australia, and Study in the Czech Republic, but this list is not exhaustive. Check out the international education pages of the countries you’re interested in to see if they have any resources or scholarships available!
If you’re looking for some scholarship inspiration, check out my fellow blogger, Gabby, at Packs Light- she earned $40,000 in scholarships, including the Boren Scholarship!
When Generation Study Abroad first launched in 2014, only about 10% of American university students were taking advantage of the opportunity to study abroad. Given how much of a life-changing experience studying abroad was for me, is for the students I now work with, and will be for the upcoming generation of university students, it’s important to realize that it isn’t an opportunity available only to the wealthiest among us. If you’ve thought about studying abroad but have convinced yourself that it isn’t possible, or if you haven’t thought about it at all, I encourage you to check out the program and funding options available to you- this is the first step towards an academic experience that will most likely change your entire world-view. Studying abroad is not a semester off from “real school”, or a way for students to backpack across Europe; the right study abroad experience will be an opportunity for you to experience the world and your education in a way that you might never have thought was possible. Studying abroad will land you in a classroom with professors with completely different ideas than your own, with peers from completely different backgrounds than your own, and will allow you to challenge what you already know and believe in so that you can have a better and more clear understanding of the city, country, and world in which you live. If it were up to me, every university student around the world would have a cross-cultural experience as a part of their degree program, and I hope that you take advantage of the opportunity!
If you’d like help choosing a study abroad program, or need help figuring out a way to fund it, please don’t hesitate to contact me here. I’m more than happy to lend a hand to ensure that you find the best fit for you!
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