7 Tips to Make Study Abroad More Affordable

Most people seem to assume that study abroad is expensive – so much so that they write it off before even investigating programs and associated costs. This is unfortunate because studying abroad can be quite affordable, and it’s certainly worth the investment. In fact it’s probably the cheapest opportunity that most students will have to spend a significant amount of time overseas without actually moving there. But the cost of studying abroad varies greatly depending on the type and location of the program, the length of the stay, and whether the program is administered through a university or an outside organization.

Knox College Associate Professor of Modern Languages Robin Ragan worked with the Office of Institutional Research and Assessment and recently conducted a survey to discover what holds students back from study abroad. The number one reason: cost.

“A lot of times [not being able to afford it] is an assumption that students make upfront, but they don’t really have numbers at their side to prove they can’t afford it,” Ragan said. “Our challenge is getting to students who assume they can’t study abroad because of the cost before they even attend the info sessions.”

In an effort to encourage more students to go abroad, many colleges and universities are committed to maintaining cost parity; in other words, a semester abroad should cost exactly the same as one on the home campus, at least as far as tuition and board. Others offer vouchers that can be used to help defray the costs of airfare, meals and in-country travel, since these costs can vary widely depending on the destination country. Some study abroad programs – especially those in developing countries – can actually be less expensive than tuition and fees for the equivalent amount of time on your home campus. With a little research, you might be able to find scholarships and financial assistance to cover a significant percentage of the upfront cost.

It is essential, however, that you figure out how you will fund your study abroad experience before submitting your application. In fact, many advisers recommend that students consider study abroad as part of the decision-making process when applying to colleges.

“Check out how the college supports study abroad. Can you take your financial aid with you?” advises Professor Anne B. Wallen, Coordinator, National Scholarships and Fellowships at University of Kansas. “Does the Office of Study Abroad, individual schools and departments, and the Honors Program all have scholarships available to help offset study abroad costs?”

There are many scholarships available, but students have to look for them and not be afraid to ask for help. Wallen also recommends applying for as many scholarships as you can.

“I work with students on writing great applications for merit-based scholarships, and they are often discouraged that it’s rare that one scholarship will cover all expenses, she says. “I encourage students to apply for multiple awards. Once you have one strong application put together, it becomes easier to adapt your writing for other awards. I know several students who have ended up in the enviable position of having to turn down an award because they were over-funded after winning multiple awards.”

There is a tremendous amount of information out there and the choices can be overwhelming. That’s why in my latest book, A Student Guide to Study Abroad (published by Institute of International Education 2013), an entire chapter is devoted to “Figuring Out the Financials.” I’ve pared down the information and included seven tips to make study abroad more affordable.

1. Determine if you can apply your financial aid to study abroad. Any financial aid that you already receive from your university should be transferable to a study abroad experience run by or affiliated with that university, because the tuition that you will be paying to study abroad is probably that of your home university. Some institutions will also allow students to use their university aid for nonaffiliated programs. Moreover, the amount of aid may vary depending on the type of program you choose. So don’t assume that whatever aid you are currently receiving from your school will transfer over; you need to check with the financial aid office. Federal financial aid can be applied to any program as long as credit is earned and your home college accepts the transferred credits.

2. Apply for Study Abroad Scholarships. Most colleges have a straightforward framework for applying for study abroad scholarships, one that lays out the potential amounts available, the process and deadlines for applying, and any restrictions that may exist. General scholarships for study abroad assistance, as well as targeted scholarships for diversity, first-generation (if you are the first in your family to attend college), and financially needy students are usually offered. Students must apply for scholarships and some can be very competitive. Be sure to look beyond your college scholarships, and ask your on-campus mentor or study abroad adviser for further advice and ideas:


For a comprehensive listing of scholarships and funding, check out IIE Passport’s Study Abroad Funding site.

3. Pursue destinations off the beaten track. The best way to get a handle on the cost of living in your temporary home overseas is to compare the cost of living between the two countries, taking into account the fact that individual cities or regions can be above or below the national level. Study abroad program advisers should be able to provide you with the exchange rates and cost of living statistics for your host country, including those for food, housing and local transportation. Individuals who have studied abroad in the same location or on the same program recently should also be a good source of practical, on-the-ground information. Certain locations such as Spain, England and Italy are inherently going to be more expensive than others such as Ecuador, Peru or Senegal. It all has to do with the host country’s overall standard of living, especially as reflected in the postsecondary education system, and the overall price of basic commodities and services.

4. Opt for a short course. Many universities have been encouraging students to go on short experiences abroad, coupled with on-campus coursework before departure and after their return. Because these programs involve only a limited time overseas – two to four weeks – they usually have the advantage of being considerably less expensive. However, many of these short courses do not have the same number of scholarships available.

5. Look for Ways to Save Money on the Ground. Two of the biggest expenses are housing and food. Participating in a homestay is considered the cheapest option and includes meals and laundry, and offers the best immersion. You can also save money by preparing your own meals, if possible, and eating at local restaurants. You should also manage your money wisely, an important lesson to learn as a student that you can carry through life as a traveler.

6. Work or intern abroad – but do so legally! Internships abroad are a growing area in education abroad, and they are not only in the purview of study abroad offices. You can also seek guidance from your academic department or career services department which often work with the private sector to arrange internships for their students.  More often than ever before, universities are reaching out to their alumni to develop internship opportunities for their students. Plus you might be able to find some sort of work when you arrive, but make sure you investigate and follow local labor laws.

7. Enroll directly in a foreign university. Perhaps the most cost-effective way to study abroad is to enroll directly in an international institution, taking its courses and making your own travel and other arrangements. This can be done under the auspices of your own university or independently. Depending on the university, your costs can be significantly less (some students have claimed it only paying $2,000-3,000 for a semester, plus travel), plus you’ll have more flexibility and independence. You will be attending classes as an international student, and chances are you will need to know the local language well enough to participate. The amount of time commitment and risk involved (credit transfer can be complicated) on your part is much greater than going with an established program, but of the dozens of students I’ve interviewed who’ve done it can’t say enough good things about the money they saved and immersion the experienced.

Study abroad doesn’t have to break the bank. There is a lot of information out there online, on campus, and in the form of firsthand experience from friends and other students who’ve recently returned from studying abroad. Talk to other students who have gone before (several if possible) to find out how much things really cost and how much they really spent above and beyond the “posted” price of the study abroad program. Advice specific to the country you’re visiting will be especially helpful.

Don’t forget to get your copy of A Student Guide to Study Abroad, which is filled with hundreds of easy-to-follow tips – just like those above – as well as personal stories from other students.