Students Help Students Study Abroad

Monies for overseas education can be meager. At some colleges, student fees of $5 to $14 are providing a significant pool of aid.
February 9, 2009

Ask study abroad professionals what their challenges are, and the increasing cost for students – followed by the rising cost of program administration and insufficient institutional scholarship support – top the list (according to a 2008 survey from the Forum on Education Abroad). A handful of colleges across the country now levy fees to address, at least to a modest degree, two of those three issues.

Many colleges have long charged fees of students studying abroad to cover program administration costs (number two on the list of challenges). But these new fees are being charged of all students -- even those who never study abroad -- to fund institutional scholarships. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, for instance, students voted last year by more than a two-to-one margin to instate a $5 fee to be used for study abroad scholarships; in the first allocation of awards, 177 students collectively received about $150,000 in scholarships for winter break and spring semester programs.

Also in that election, Illinois students overwhelmingly favored restoring the controversial (and retired) Chief Illiniwek mascot. “The students didn’t vote the way the university administration wanted on that one; we are delighted they did vote the way we’d like on the study abroad referendum,” said William I. Brustein, the associate provost for international affairs and professor of sociology, political science and history. “I was delighted with it because it allowed me to leverage more funds both internally and externally. You can just imagine when you go to a potential donor and you say, ‘Look how much our students care about study abroad. They’ve taxed themselves.’ ”

“Our final pitch as we look back on it in retrospect was this is an opportunity for us to raise money for students, paid for by the students,” said Rory Polera, the College of Engineering representative on Illinois' Study Abroad Student Advisory Committee. The Illinois for Illinois scholarship funds are to be distributed as evenly as possible across four categories, which overlap with policy goals to diversify both the population that studies abroad and the destinations they choose. The four categories are general merit, financial need, underrepresented students (defined as Hispanic, black or Native American students), and non-traditional destinations (outside Western Europe).

Kennesaw State University, in Georgia, also added an international education fee this fall. Dan Paracka, director of international services and programs, said the $14 fee, collected for fall, spring and summer sessions, will generate about $700,000 annually. Of that, $20,000 is set aside for faculty site visits, with the rest to be used for scholarships – of $250 to $1,000 for programs of 16 days or less; up to $3,000 for semester-long programs; and up to $4,000 for the academic year abroad. Criteria include grade point average, financial need, study in a less common destination, and study involving one of a number of components: intensive research or service learning, an internship or practicum, or intensive foreign language and home stays.

“I think it is going to enable greater participation,” Paracka said. “Before this, there definitely was a lot less money available. Of course, students can get loans and there are other scholarships out there, but as far as institutional monies that had been raised or developed, it was a drop in the bucket. It was $20,000 or $30,000 a year."

Paracka was hoping to see an initial uptick in interest, but enrollments in summer study abroad are actually down 10 to 20 percent, while fall and spring enrollments are up. While Paracka has been attributing the summer downturn to the economy, he wondered aloud whether the scholarships might be playing some role in encouraging students to attend the longer-term programs, which is, in fact, exactly what he wants to encourage. "It was a specific goal. We'd like to have the scholarship help students go on longer programs so they would have a greater immersion and cross-cultural learning experience."

Meanwhile, since 2004, Georgia State University has been awarding scholarships with revenue derived from a $5 per student fee. The scholarships generally range from $250 to $1,000. The bulk are awarded for May and summer study abroad, with 153 scholarships worth a total of $72,750 awarded for May and summer of 2008, said Farrah Bernardino, director of study abroad programs. "I wish we had more money to give them, but the first question that they ask, they come here and say, 'I know I want to go abroad. Now how do I pay for it?' To be able to tell them that our institution has a scholarship just for study abroad, at least it's a starting point for them to be able to pay for it. It can't cover the cost of the program, but we start with this scholarship."

“We’ve considered going back and asking for more," Bernardino said, explaining that competition for scholarships has increased. "But we are hesitant to go back to the students and ask them for more money because we want the university to show more support. Why should we ask the students? They’re already paying so many student fees.”

The University of Texas at Austin, which has assessed such a fee since 1990, has also seen increased demand for study abroad scholarships. The fee originally was $1; it's now $3, with one dollar for every three earmarked for an endowment and the rest distributed annually. All the Texas public institutions received legal authority to charge up to $4 in international education fees in 1989, if the levy is approved by students in a referendum, explained Stephen C. DePaul, director of global initiatives for the University of Texas System.

“Early on, about 75 to 80 percent of the students that applied, back in the early to mid- 90s, were receiving awards, and now there’s a greater number of applicants and competition is more keen and unfortunately the award percentage is down to about 35 or 40 percent of those who apply,” said DePaul. “In the current economic times, with so much national conversation devoted to affordability of education, I don’t think there’s much of an appetite to increase any fee.”

UT Austin typically has distributed between $150,000 and $200,000 in fee-derived scholarships in any given year. The average award in 2008 was $1,300. “We try to set our scholarship award amounts at roughly the cost of a plane ticket. Of all the expenses with any program, we know there’s a ticket and that’s something they don’t incur at UT, so we’re trying to level the playing field,” said Heather Barclay Hamir, director of the study abroad office at UT Austin.

“I see it as sort of a methodology,” Brian Whalen, president and CEO of the Forum on Education Abroad, said of the student fee structure. “It’s essentially the same as taking a portion of the tuition dollars and giving that to the study abroad operation, except in this case one can argue an advantage is you’re being much more transparent and open about the fact that’s happening because you’re assessing a separate fee. And I think there’s some value in that, so that everyone realizes, yes, I’m going to pay a study abroad fee and that’s going to fund the study abroad program and operation in a specific way.”

On the other hand, Whalen said, “It could have the opposite perception… it could highlight the fact that maybe study abroad is not integral, perhaps not part of the ‘regular' academic program, similar to technology or use of the gym or whatever other fees might be assessed. It could in fact have the opposite intention; it could depend on the campus culture of a particular institution.

"The other factor too that could be a negative would be the institution might think, 'OK, we've taken care of funding study abroad now. We don't have to do anything more.' "

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