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Can I Afford to Study Abroad in College?

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For many students, studying abroad is an important and exciting part of their plans for college. Taking time to study in another country is a great way to deepen your understanding of a particular culture or location and strengthen your command of another language.



Like many opportunities in higher education, studying abroad costs money — not just for tuition, but for travel, housing, living expenses, and emergency savings. These costs can be significant, and can create a substantial barrier for interested students who are working within strict financial constraints.


However, for students who haven’t even applied to college yet, there’s no reason to get discouraged already! Plenty of students who come from difficult financial situations are nevertheless able to study abroad. By planning ahead for the financial impact, budgeting for and controlling program costs, and making use of financial aid and other funding options, it can be possible to make studying abroad an affordable prospect.


In this post, we’ll introduce you to the financial side of studying abroad in college, suggest ways you might plan to mitigate the costs, and give you the knowledge to ask the right questions and make informed decisions about your own future study-abroad options.


Studying Abroad in College: A Brief Introduction

When researching colleges, you’ll find that many competitive schools proudly tout the high percentages of their students who study abroad. Many — perhaps most — college-bound students start their undergraduate programs intending to at least consider studying abroad.


Practically speaking, most students who study abroad do so during their junior year of college, either for one semester or for the entire year. Summer study-abroad programs may also be available through your school or independently, though these may have different policies and procedures.


The potential benefits of studying abroad are many and varied. You’ll get an up-close introduction to a new culture and add to your well of life experiences, all within the security of an established educational program.


If you’re traveling to a place where people speak a language other than English, your immersion in this language can jump-start your fluency. If you’re majoring in a subject with an international focus, you can also use studying abroad to access valuable resources and deepen your understanding of that field.


The major prerequisite for studying abroad is that you have a strong working knowledge of the language in which your classes will be held. (Some programs offer English instruction even in countries that are not primarily English-speaking.) While you’ll be able to find English speakers all over the world, understanding the language of the place in which you’re studying is essential in order for you to get the full benefit of your time abroad.


Of course, studying abroad isn’t for everyone — some students may find that the time away from campus doesn’t mesh well with their other academic goals or extracurricular plans, for example. However, it’s a popular option for those students who can fit it in, and many participants find that the experience is among their fondest memories of college.


How much does it cost to study abroad?

As you can see, studying abroad is often a very valuable experience for college students. However, the financial demands of participating in one of these programs shouldn’t be ignored. Even during the college application process, you should be aware that studying abroad in the future can be expensive and may or may not fit into your budget.


Each college and each study-abroad program has its own set of policies and procedures, and these might interact in a number of different ways with other concerns like your financial aid status. Given all these variations, it’s difficult to make blanket statements about the financial aspects of studying abroad, but here, we’ll provide some advice about the policies you may encounter. 


In some programs at some colleges, school policies dictate that students studying abroad pay the same amount as students studying on campus, whatever the actual cost of the study-abroad program might be. In other words, your billed costs would stay the same, and the university would take care of any difference.


For most students, however, the cost of studying abroad will be different from the normal cost of a semester or year at your college. Often, this will mean that studying abroad is more expensive, but occasionally it actually ends up being more affordable for you.


Some of the variables that can affect your personal cost for studying abroad could include:


  • Your college’s study-abroad and financial aid policies
  • What type of study-abroad program you’re undertaking
  • Whether your intended study-abroad program is administered directly by your school, by a partner school, or by an independent organization
  • What type of housing you’ll be living in during the program
  • The cost of living and tuition in your intended destination
  • The cost of traveling to and from your intended destination, including fees for getting a passport, securing a visa, and fulfilling other administrative requirements
  • Which other opportunities you participate in during your time abroad, such as extracurriculars, cultural events, or additional travel
  • The income you’ll lose if you’re not able to work a paying job during the school year
  • The availability of grants and other financial aid specifically intended for study-abroad students


You or your parents will also need to have some amount of emergency funds on hand to deal with unexpected challenges — for instance, if you encounter a medical emergency and need to return to the United States on short notice. Under certain circumstances, the country to which you’re traveling may also require you to provide proof of your financial resources in order to obtain a student visa.


In short, the cost of a summer-abroad program is determined by factors similar to those that determine the cost of your college education overall. The difference is that your study-abroad program will be shorter in duration, which may make a difference in terms of fitting it into your overall college budget.


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Planning to Study Abroad: Costs and Resources

As you go through the process of preparing for and applying to college, your plans for managing the financial burden of your education will be an important concern. If you’ll be depending upon financial aid to make your education possible, you’re likely wondering about whether studying abroad will be financially possible for you given all the costs it entails.


The information we’ve provided about the expenses involved in studying abroad may sound discouraging. However, studying abroad when you’re on a tight budget can be done. It may just take some additional work and compromise to find a plan that fits your needs.


Again, policies vary a great deal from school to school and program to program, so we can’t provide a response that will apply to every student’s study-abroad experience. One thing that you can count on, however, is that you’re not the first one to encounter this problem, so resources do exist to help make studying abroad work for you.


Given the popularity of study abroad, your college’s administrative offices have definitely dealt with this issue in the past, and have experience helping students determine what they can afford. Your college’s financial aid office and the office that deals with international study (which may go by any of a number of names) should be able to answer your questions and work with you to determine your options.


Just as with the cost of your education in general, there are many scholarships and other sources of funding that may be able to help with your study-abroad costs. Besides assistance offered by your college or the study-abroad program itself, you can also look into scholarships from outside organizations.


Identifying, researching, and applying for these funding sources can represent a considerable amount of work; it’s clear that getting the most out of your college education with limited funds is not easy. However, resources do exist, and the unique and rich experiences of time spent studying abroad may very well be worth the effort it takes for you to access them.


As a college applicant who’s already actively planning for the future, you also have the advantage of starting early on your side. Since most students don’t study abroad until their junior year of college, you’ll have some time to prepare by saving up money, researching your options, and finding funding that will enable you to have a great study-abroad experience. Below, we’ll go over some strategies for finding a plan that works for you.


Study Abroad and Your College Application Process

As we’ve covered many times on the CollegeVine blog, starting early in making college plans is a wise move that gives you the time to do your research, make informed decisions, and change your mind when necessary. It’s perfectly reasonable to take your study-abroad aspirations into account before college, even when you’re still in the early stages of this research process.


Of course, there are tasks that you can’t undertake until later on, including choosing and applying to a specific study-abroad program. However, there’s a lot you can do during the college planning and application process to find out more about how you might pay for your study-abroad plans.


First of all, while you’re in the process of learning more about or applying to colleges, do some research into how your chosen schools handle study-abroad costs and financial aid. This will require some deeper investigation on your part, since you likely won’t find full details on this topic in the college’s standard admission pamphlets and the like.


A better bet is to take a look at the college’s study-abroad resources intended for current students. These policies may take a little more digging to find, but being able to make informed decisions is worth the work. Poking around on a college’s website for current students, not just its admissions website, can teach you a great deal about the practical realities of life at that school.


You might also contact the school’s financial aid office or study-abroad office directly via phone or email to request more information or get specific questions answered. Keep in mind that some questions can’t be answered until you’re a student at that school, have submitted additional information, and have formed a relationship with your collegiate advisors.


If having the opportunity to study abroad is very important to you, it’s reasonable to include a college’s study-abroad policies and financial aid availability in your decision-making process when choosing where to apply. The information you gather at this time can be very useful in setting up your baseline expectations, though you should consider that a college’s policies may change in the future.


During the process of researching colleges, you can also start to identify scholarship programs and other financial aid opportunities that might help to fund your study-abroad plans. Again, you can’t apply for these scholarships yet, and it’s possible that opportunities will change by the time you’re ready to apply, but it’s always a good idea to get informed about your options.


As we’ve mentioned, some study-abroad programs and destinations are costlier than others due to factors that are often beyond your control. If you hope to study abroad on a budget, it can help to keep an open mind about where exactly you would like to study — that way, you’re more likely to find a program that fits your resources.


This openness to different possibilities can impact other facets of your college plans, such as what language(s) you choose to learn. For instance, Spanish is a language that’s spoken in a large number of countries, so your Spanish skills could be a pathway to a variety of different study-abroad programs, possibly making it easier to find one that works well for you.


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Monikah Schuschu
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions, and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.