Can I Afford to Study Abroad?

Study Abroad

By Irene Starygina

Globe-trotting undergrads agree that taking classes in another country can be one of the highlights of your academic career. Even a relatively weak dollar and the most significant economic downturn since the 1930s aren't stopping students from thinking about studying abroad. Fortunately, with the right knowledge, the experience doesn’t have to burn a hole in your pocket—you could even end up spending less on a semester abroad than you'd pay for one at home.

Early bird gets the cheap ticket: “Early registration is key," says Erin Sperling, a University of Arizona graduate who spent her fall 2008 semester in Nanjing, China, "Register for a program at least a semester before you plan on going.” This will give you time to search for the best deals on airfare, get a head start on scholarship and loan applications, and avoid late registration fees. Before embarking on your research, be sure to visit your school's study abroad office to make sure you’re eligible in the first place—most colleges require you to earn a certain amount of course credit during your trip.

Consider the total cost: When exploring your options, make sure you know what comes with each specific package. Immersion trips can clock in at around $15,000 per semester and include housing, tuition, books, round-trip airfare, two meals a day and some sponsored trips. Programs in less developed countries often cost a few thousand less. “It can actually come out almost the same or a lot cheaper than spending the semester at home,” says Sperling. However, many programs listed online exclude the cost of the round-trip flight. “Looks can be deceiving," says Kevin Stoy, marketing coordinator for the Center for Global Education at George Mason University. "Some programs include airfare, some do not.” Always consult your school's study abroad office after you've narrowed down your choices.

Shorter trips: Can’t afford a semester-long jaunt but still want the study abroad experience? Many colleges offer winter and summer intercession programs that last from 2-6 weeks and cost about a third of the price of a semester-long program. For example, a China Cultural History Tour offered by Eastern Michigan University from June 1- June 20, 2010 costs $2,695 for EMU students, not including tuition or airfare. The downside of a short program is that you'll still pay the same airfare for a shorter stay, though you're more likely to find good deals on flights during the colder months. Also, unlike with summer programs, financial aid can typically be applied to winter study abroad.

Shop around: Most study abroad programs accept students from schools across the country. If you go to an expensive private college where cost per credit is high, you might want to consider exploring programs offered by less pricey colleges, including public institutions in your home state. Remember to find out if you'll be able to apply your study abroad credits to your transcript and major when you get back.

Hostels vs. Host Family: Staying with a host family can be more expensive than lodging in hostels or dorms, but students often find that their experience abroad is greatly enhanced when they are immersed in a family's culture and language on a daily basis. “I recommend living with a host family to everyone who studies abroad,” says Allison Lambert, who spent six weeks in Tokyo while attending SUNY Buffalo. “I went on trips with my host family that I never would have been able to go on if I'd lived in a dorm.” Students who stay with a host family often receive an extra meal each day along with the benefit of adding enhanced language proficiency to their resumés. “In addition to the included breakfast and dinner, my host mom packed up a lunch for me every day,” says Lambert. Some colleges, like George Mason, view host families as so integral to the experience that their study abroad programs only offer host family lodging. The catch is that host families often require the full rent to be paid in cash at the time of the American student’s arrival. “I had to carry the thousand dollars cash on the plane,” says Lambert.

Have a pocket money budget? Double it! Let’s face it—it’s hard enough to stay within a budget in a familiar territory, much less in a foreign country. Even if you have a currency convertor built into your head, you’re bound to underestimate your budget. How much spending money should you bring for a semester abroad? Around $1,000 should be enough, says Sperling. This doesn’t include dining out and clubbing, so add another $1,000 if you’re planning on living the high life, suggests Lambert. By budgeting one third more than you think you'll need, you can avoid unneccessary foreign ATM fees and dreaded overdraft charges. Use a currency conversion rate website to get an idea of how favorable the exchange is at your destination. Remember that your dollar will go further in Australia than in the U.K., for example.

Financing Your Study Abroad Experience

Apply early for scholarships: Qualified students with an excellent academic record may find that scholarships and grants can cover 60-70% of their trip. “A student needs to do the legwork and spend time gathering references and filling out applications,” says Stoy, who also notes the importance of applying early. Check for scholarship deadlines at least six months before your trip and put them on your calendar. Your school’s study abroad office will list scholarships and other financing opportunities, and you may want to search for additional funding online.

Financial aid and loans: “We are seeing an increase in students who are using their financial aid for study abroad,” says Stoy. He suggests that students apply for financial aid about six months before their trip and start planning right after they file their FAFSA. Remember that loans and scholarships often don’t cover summer programs (you'll want to double-check with your school's study abroad office if you're considering one).

Work-study: Taking classes overseas and exploring another country can feel like a full-time job, but landing a gig while you’re away can net you enough money to cover small expenses. Whether or not  you’re already enrolled in work-study at your home university, ask the program advisor if you can apply for a job in a different country. “American students are in high demand in some non-English-speaking countries,” says Sperling. “Five to six hours of work per week can make you enough to cover your daily expenses.” Jobs can range from tutoring English at a university or one-on-one, to being a lifeguard, and even bartending.

Find an airfare sponsor: When you begin researching round-trip flight fares, press your family and friends for help. “When you know that you’re going, let everyone know that you’re looking for help on airfare," says Sperling. "You might find that you have some cousin twice-removed who takes three-week business trips and has a ton of frequent flier miles you can use.” Check out STA Travel, which caters to college students and offers major discounts on flights (they also have a useful section on work-study). There are plenty of niche websites offering red tag round-trip deals to specific countries. Allison Lambert got a great deal on her Tokyo round-trip flight through IACE Travel, which lists discount flight to Japan.