Episode 75: Study Abroad, the New Deal Breaker

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Our episode today is a direct result of my recent trip to London to pick up my daughter and bring her home. What that means really is that she needed someone to bring suitcases that she could fill up with her possessions after one year of graduate study in London and someone to help her get them all on the airplane to fly back here to New York City. I was that person.

Study Abroad the New Deal Breaker on USACollegeChat podcast

Those of you who have been listening to our podcast since the beginning are well aware of my strong belief in the value of studying abroad—“abroad” meaning studying outside the U.S.—for college students. All three of my children have done it, and all three have benefitted enormously from it. All three did it both at the undergraduate level and at the graduate level, so I am walking the walk and not just talking the talk, as they say.

This time, I had the pleasure of attending my daughter’s oral presentation of her master’s degree thesis proposal (the thesis will be written this summer) at Richmond, the American International University in London. Again, if you have been listening or if you read our book, you already know that one of my sons earned his undergraduate degree at Richmond. I loved it then, and I love it now. Richmond is an interesting university because it is jointly accredited in the U.S. and the U.K. Its undergraduate programs are in Richmond-upon-Thames, a beautiful hamlet just outside London, and its graduate programs are in Kensington, one of London’s loveliest neighborhoods. Polly’s master’€™s degree program area was small–just six full-time students, studying Visual Arts Management and Curating. There were three students from the U.S., one from South Korea, one from Russia, and one from Wales.

Polly’€™s Richmond professors were from England, Ireland, and Canada. They were so smart (as anyone could tell by the questions they asked the students after their presentations)—and yet so personable and so invested in each of their students. My heartfelt thanks to Oonagh Murphy (convenor of the Visual Arts Management and Curating programme), Nicola Mann, Tom Flynn, and Kate Mattocks–an impressive group. Hats off to Robert Wallis, Associate Dean of M.A. Programmes, for his leadership and support. The student-to-student bonds and the student-to-professor relationships were extraordinary and bridged all of the international boundaries that they crossed. I can’€™t imagine that Polly could have had a better experience anywhere–€”but to have had it in London just made it that much better.

Even though Polly had already learned to live abroad as an undergraduate student in a semester program in Florence (also operated by Richmond, by the way, that brought together students from all over the U.S.), she and her classmates in her undergraduate program were more tightly supervised, both academically and personally. As a parent, I was thrilled by that. Now, as a graduate student, she was on her own, navigating both academics and everyday life in a foreign city. But she was ready for it and learned from it. She will never be the same–€”in a good way.

All this got me thinking about what we have said in the past about study abroad options and what we should say now about them. So, here we go.

1. Study Abroad: The Statistics

Let’s start with a look at some statistics, which I have to admit I was totally unaware of. They come to you from NAFSA: Association of International Educators (formerly called the National Association of Foreign Study Advisers, hence the acronym NAFSA). Two years ago, during the 2013–2014 academic year, just over 300,000 U.S. college students studied abroad for college credit–€”that is, not quite 1.5 percent of all U.S. college students. That is a tiny, tiny percentage of our U.S. college students.

When we look at the racial and ethnic backgrounds of these 300,000 or so students, we see that white students are way overrepresented and black and Latino students are way underrepresented–€”and that is too bad. Here are the details (these are the most recent data from the Institute of International Education’€™s Open Doors Report and the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics):

  • U.S. college enrollment is about 59 percent white, but study abroad enrollment is about 74 percent white.
  • U.S. college enrollment is about 16 percent Hispanic/Latino, but study abroad enrollment is only about 8 percent Hispanic/Latino.
  • U.S. college enrollment is about 15 percent black, but study abroad enrollment is only about 6 percent black.

I am wondering whether the underrepresentation of black and Hispanic/Latino students is partly because parents believe that study abroad is even more expensive than study at home in the U.S. As a matter of fact, that is not always true. But more about that later.

Let’€™s also take a look at where our U.S. students study abroad, and these numbers have remained remarkably stable since at least 2009. About 53 percent of our U.S. college students studied abroad in Europe, with almost 40 percent studying in just four countries: the U.K., Italy, Spain, and France. About 16 percent studied in Latin America, about 12 percent in Asia, and no more than about 4 percent in any other region of the world.

Interestingly, ValuePenguin, a research firm, did a study to determine how expensive it is for college students to live in the 48 countries that U.S. students most often study in. Written up in an article in Travel + Leisure magazine, the study looked at the cost of rent and utilities, flights, groceries, nightlife/dining out, clothes, recreation, local transportation, cell phone plans, and a student visa. The study produced two lists of 24 countries each: the most expensive and the least expensive. As it turns out, no European countries (where most U.S. students study) are on the least expensive list. Even worse, six of the top 10 most expensive countries are in Europe. Latin American countries are a better bet, if you are trying to watch costs. You can find the whole ranked list in the Travel + Leisure article. Just in case you are interested, the most expensive country to study in is Singapore, and the least expensive is Mexico.

2. The Money

But let’s look at money a different way, for a minute. First, let me say that I haven’€™t done an exhaustive study of what foreign study costs, as ValuePenguin did. But what I can offer is some anecdotal evidence of foreign study costs from my own experience.

When Polly spent her junior year fall semester in Florence in the program that was operated by Richmond, I can tell you that it was cheaper to send her there than to send her downtown to Fordham. Now, that doesn’€™t mean it was cheap. It certainly wasn’€™t. It was just relatively cheap compared to her private New York City university. So, if parents are thinking that it is always more expensive to go abroad than stay home, I can say that is not true–€”at least, not necessarily true if your child is going to a private college in the U.S.

Let’€™s fast forward to graduate school. Some of your children will undoubtedly end up there in the next few years. All three of my children earned their master’s degrees abroad–€”two from universities in the U.K. and one from an American university with its own fantastic campus in Spain. All three attracted students from all over the world. All three master’€™s degree programs were small, with excellent faculty-to-student ratios. The interesting thing about the U.K. programs was that each one was just one calendar year of study–September to September. Both had two semesters of coursework plus a summer for an internship and thesis or a final major project. The American university did a very similar thing–€”perhaps following European custom.

Not only was tuition lower in the European universities than it would have been in a private U.S. university, but the programs were just one year instead of what might well have been two years in the U.S. So, total tuition and living costs ended up being far lower in the U.K. At least in some cases, though I am not claiming in all cases, European graduate education turns out to be a way to save real money.

3. A Deal Breaker?

But enough about facts and figures. Let’€™s go back to something that Marie and I wrote about in our book last fall–€”How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students (available from amazon.com). We wrote about the notion of deal breakers–€”that is, things that are so important that you would not let your child apply to a college that didn’€™t have them or things that are so important that your child would not agree to apply to a college that didn’€™t have them. You might have your deal breakers, and your child might have others.

We talked about nine deal breakers in the book, and we have done episodes on all of them. Now, I am wishing that we had written about a tenth deal breaker, and that is whether a college you are considering for your child has its own study abroad program or at least easy access to a study abroad program (perhaps a joint one in a consortium of other colleges). If I have managed to convince any of you listeners about the values of foreign study–€”in students’€™ academic growth, personal growth, and social growth–€”the availability of such a program might well make your deal breakers list. It should have made mine if I had known more at the time.

While it is always possible to do a semester abroad even if a college does not have its own program or easy access to one, that takes a lot of effort from the student, including dealing with faculty and administrators who might not think that leaving their own college for another institution abroad is worth it. Having a program in place at your child’€™s college makes things a lot smoother.

We talked often about study abroad programs in our virtual nationwide tour some months ago. At the time, we were amazed at the variety of programs that existed and at the attractiveness of those programs. We noted colleges that encouraged–”even required–their students to study abroad and colleges where high percentages of students did study abroad. And we applauded them. So, what do you think? Is this a new deal breaker for you or your child?

Want to hear from a parent and a student about studying abroad?

  • Watch our Facebook video featuring Regina and her daughter discussing her study abroad experiences below.

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