A Brief Q&A on Study Abroad-related Costs

An abbreviated version of this Q&A was posted on Reuters and ran in Time‘s Money section, as well as many others.

I’m often asked about the costs and the value of study abroad, by parents, students as well as reporters. In response to a reporters’ recent questions, I provided the following answers but — as you can see — my answers are long, longer than what can usually fit into a typical online news framework. Rather than let the work go unread, I decided to share it here in the hopes that it answers some questions with the goal of having you investigate, if you’re interested. For more information, pick up a copy of either A Student Guide to Study Abroad or the best-selling (so exciting!) A Parent Guide to Study Abroad (just released in Spanish).

What is the range of costs parents can expect for a study abroad program?

The cost of studying abroad varies greatly depending on numerous factors including the type and location of the program, the length of stay, whether the program is administered through a university or an outside provider, or if a student enrolls directly in a foreign university. As such, there is no feasible range to quote. As a parent, I understand that price matters a great deal. But as a business woman, I recommend parents look at the value of the experience and its return-on-investment, or ROI. It makes much more sense to view study abroad as a component that enhances a student’s overall education, begin identifying the best programs, and then compare costs. This requires your child to focus on the educational aspects of study abroad as opposed to the destination. Too many students guided by campus and program advisers ask “Where do you want go?” instead of “How will this enhance your degree and ability to get a job?”

What particular countries tend be more affordable and, conversely, more expensive for study abroad?

Again, it depends on the type of program. Generally speaking, Western European countries such as England, Italy and France are inherently more expensive than developing countries such as Peru, Senegal or Thailand. The difference has to do with the host country’s overall standard of living and the overall cost of basic goods and services. For example, the price of studying abroad for a semester in the Dominican Republic and staying with a host family versus going to Paris and living in an apartment is going to vary quite a bit. But again, to illustrate the wide variability, airfare to one of the developing countries noted above combined with the required immunizations may increase the overall cost. It’s just not possible to answer this question in a vacuum.

Are there any steps you recommend parents take to help shave some costs?

One, do your research. All programs are neither equal in cost nor overall benefits to a student. Compare and contrast programs, read the fine print and talk to other parents. You will need to commit a significant amount of your own time to review the vast amounts of material available. But it’s worth it.

Two, investigate scholarships within your community, at your place of business, and at your child’s college or university. Every year tens of millions of dollars are given to students to study abroad from local rotary clubs to nationally competitive programs like the Fulbright. Most colleges and universities with study abroad offices have a wealth of information about the various forms of scholarships available from a variety of sources.

Three, look into the option of having your child enroll directly in a foreign university, which usually requires withdrawing from his or her home college for the semester or year. This is usually the cheapest alternative, and significantly so, and offers your child an opportunity for real independent learning on a global scale. But it is not without its risks. It requires a great deal more time commitment and independence on the part of your child than a university-led program. Your child will need to manage almost everything from applying for and confirming a student visa prior to departure to making sure that transcripts are sent and credits approved back on his or her home campus.

Four, once your child is on the ground, there are plenty of ways to save money such as opening a local bank account, getting a cheap local phone, living like a local, using public transportation wisely, and setting a budget (and sticking to it).

Does your study abroad affect your financial aid or is there additional aid or scholarships a student can qualify for?

Any financial aid your child is currently receiving from his or her university should be transferrable to a study abroad program run by or affiliated with that university, since the tuition you are paying to study abroad probably goes directly to your home university. Some institutions let students use financial aid for non-affiliated, credit-granting programs. It’s best to check directly with the school’s financial aid office. Federal financial aid can be applied to any program as long as credit is earned and the university accepts the transferred credits. Again, it’s best to check with the sources on campus.

With respect to scholarships, every year tens of millions of dollars are given to students to study abroad, but they are competitive and require students to apply well in advance. Generally speaking there are five types of study abroad scholarships: merit-based and student-, destination-, program- and subject-specific. Most colleges have a straightforward framework for applying to these scholarships. In addition, there are U.S.-Government sponsored scholarships and fellowships such as the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship for students of limited financials means; Fulbright U.S. Student Program designed to provide for mutual exchange between the U.S. and 140 participating countries; Critical Language Scholarships for Intensive Summer Institutes offering fully funded language instruction and structured cultural enrichment experiences; and Boren Awards for International Study offering students the opportunity to study in regions of the world critical to the U.S. yet underrepresented in study abroad. Plus there is an increase in scholarships being offered by foreign governments and numerous study abroad providers as a direct results of the IIE Generation Study Abroad campaign. IIE also offers the most comprehensive listing of study abroad resources online at www.studyabroadfunding.org.

Can a student work while abroad?

Yes, but the local laws must be followed with regards to a working visa. There are two distinct benefits of working abroad. One is earning extra cash, and other is the added experience of working in another country. This experience can offer economic insights into a country as well as open up a wide range of intercultural experiences he or she might not have on campus.

What sort of insurance changes or additions should be made before sending a child abroad?

If your child is on your health insurance policy, keep them on and call your representative to find out if additional coverage is necessary. At the same time, look into the medical insurance being offered by the study abroad provider to be sure it properly covers your child and that he or she completes the necessary paperwork prior to departure. Most countries around the world do not accept U.S. medical insurance and may demand cash prior to treatment if one does not have international traveler’s medical insurance.

Are there any sorts of bank account or credit card changes that parents or students should make?

If your child is going to be studying for at least a semester or a year, consider opening a local bank account so he or she has better access and won’t be charged transfer fees. Another option is to open a U.S. based account with international branches (depending on the study abroad location) or a U.S. bank that allows for free ATM withdrawals and no foreign transaction fees – same with credit cards. Credit cards are important and provide a means for your child to use less cash, but check the study abroad location to find out if the security chip is used in credit cards as opposed the magnetic strip.

If you son or daughter is on your cell phone plan, can they remain on it? Should you drop their line in favor of some sort of local carrier to where they are going? Any other recommendations?

Cell phones are a good idea to have, but your child should be using them on a local basis not for calling back to the U.S.; Skype is the obvious free option. Although parents should check their carrier’s plan for coverage, most students tend to either buy a local SIM card to use in their U.S. phone (check to make sure it’s compatible) or buy a cheap, local cell phone and SIM card. They won’t really need their U.S. music or movie lists as they should be immersing themselves in local culture.

On this point of communication and technology, parents should not expect their child to communicate regularly, nor should students spend much time on social media. It’s important for the students to immerse themselves in their new home culture to soak up as much learning as possible. Skype every few weeks is enough.

Are there areas in which families typically spend money when their kids are traveling abroad that ends up being a waste? If so, what areas are they and what should be done alternatively?

One of the most important things parents can do is to help their child create a budget for their time abroad and encourage him or her to track their expenses on a regular basis, getting familiar with the local currency. For some students, using foreign currency does not always seem like “real” money, which can lead to budget-busting problems. Since many students like to travel while abroad, a great study abroad benefit, staying in-country, or maybe taking excursions every now and then, is usually cheaper and students get the benefits of actually living in a country, soaking up the local culture and spending less money, as opposed to being part student, part traveler. If a student is just interested in the travel portion and not ready for the academic commitment, consider a roundtrip ticket and a backpack as a much cheaper option until he or she is ready.

Should you send the student with cash? If so, in what currency, and should it be limited?

Traveling with some cash (a few hundred dollars) is a good idea, enough to get your child to their ultimate destination combined with some emergency funds, but not enough to make loss or theft a major catastrophe. It’s much wiser and safer to use ATM cards, or even pre-loaded debit cards with pin numbers. U.S. dollars are best and any currency exchanges should take place in-country upon arrival, not prior to departure, where lower rates and transaction fees are usually charged.