Studying Abroad Without Much Dinero

As college tuition continues to skyrocket, studying abroad may appear an academic luxury. But for even the financially neediest of students, study abroad remains within reach, experts say. So instead of putting the brakes on your kid's desire to roam the world, it's time to get that passport ready.

Plan Ahead

"The biggest thing in study abroad, if budget is a big concern, is that the student plan ahead," says Brett Berquist, executive director of the Office of Study Abroad for Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich. "An awful lot of students, particularly in public schools, end up making the choice of study abroad toward the end (of their academic career). And when they wait that long, they often miss the opportunity to really compete for big scholarships."

There's a ton of money to be had if you know where to look. The Institute of International Education in Washington, D.C., maintains an online searchable database of hundreds of study abroad scholarships, fellowships, grants and paid internships. IES Abroad, a nonprofit based in Chicago that provides study abroad programs for 185 U.S. colleges and universities, gives out $2.15 million per year in financial aid and scholarships for its study abroad programs.

But here, too, the early bird wins. "Many outside scholarships have early application deadlines between January and March and make awards only once per calendar year. Students should be sure to plan ahead and apply early," says Carol Jambor-Smith, IES associate vice president for institutional relations.

Students should explore study abroad programs when applying for colleges and visit the study abroad and financial aid offices, says Alice Niziolek, assistant director, international education and international student services at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Ill.

"Students are under a lot of misinformation," Niziolek says. "They don't really understand that there are ways of making it happen, up to and including loans. There are also additional grants for Pell Grant students."

Many colleges and universities allow students to transfer their financial aid package to an approved study abroad program, but not all do, so you'll want to find this out ahead of time. Only work-study awards are nontransferable because of student visa restrictions. So students shouldn't bank on working abroad to supplement their income, Niziolek says.

Educational exchanges provide another avenue to affordable global adventure. Universities allow their students to pay tuition, room and board at home, in exchange for tuition, room and board at the host university, which sends its own student over. "The only additional cost is the airfare to get there and if there's a difference in the cost of living," Berquist says.

Location, Location, Location

Choosing the right location can make the difference between simply an affordable program and one that might actually cost even less money than staying on campus. IES Abroad's annual survey of U.S. colleges and universities found European cities remain the most popular study abroad destinations, with London topping the list. But Western Europe, or programs focused on an English-speaking component, might have some economic disadvantages.

"One of the best sources of funding is if there's a strong foreign language competency," says Berquist. But students must take enough language courses in time to effectively compete for these scholarships.

"Students can select more affordable destinations," says Peggy Blumenthal, senior counselor to the president at IIE. "Some countries outside of Western Europe are becoming increasingly popular, such as China, Chile, Costa Rica, Argentina and South Africa."

"If (students) go someplace less popular, where the exchange rate is better, it can be less expensive," Niziolek says.

Berquist recently came back from a trip to Thailand where Michigan State will add programs. Through IES Abroad, programs in South America remain the least expensive, and the provider recently approved the opening of a low-cost program in Havana for those interested in Spanish-language immersion.

Another benefit of choosing the road less traveled: Scholarship money from the U.S. government to study abroad in countries of interest to national security. The Gilman International Scholarship Program, available for Pell Grant recipients, focuses on destinations outside of Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand, and provides individual awards of up to $5,000 and an additional $3,000 for those studying Chinese, Korean, Russian, Swahili, and Arabic, Indic, Persian and Turkic languages.

Avoid Misconceptions

Some students find bargain programs on their own or want to directly enroll in a university abroad. This strategy can sometimes backfire, Jambor-Smith says. "Students should research programs carefully to find out what is included in the program cost and what extra costs there may be," she says.

In the last few years, Michigan State has seen the biggest growth in short-term programs. But shorter-term programs don't necessarily mean savings, Berquist says. Financial aid packages follow the academic year, so there's more funding for semester- or year-long programs than for gigs during the summer or breaks.

Perhaps the biggest misconception is that study abroad is only for a privileged few. In fact, 22 percent of MSU's study abroad participants are eligible for Pell Grants -- a definition of financial need -- almost mirroring the 24 percent of MSU's general population who are Pell Grant-eligible. "It's not just for the rich kids," Berquist says.