Study Abroad

How to Study Abroad for Cheap: Direct Enrollment

During my first few years at the University of Maryland, I thought deeply about including a study abroad experience in my four-year plan. Unfortunately, taking a quick look at the price tag of some of the programs available quickly shut my dreams down. And so, instead of taking a semester to study overseas, I spent a semester doing a paid internship in Florida, thinking the change of location would satiate my wanderlust.

I quickly realized how wrong I had been in assuming all study abroad programs were out of my price range. My advisor clued me into the fact that direct enrollment programs are one of the best ways to find affordable study abroad.

However, toward the end of my junior year, as my approaching graduation date became more real, I realized my attempt to replace studying abroad with a semester in another state wasn’t quite on track. While my time in Florida was wildly enriching, there are just too many unique benefits of studying abroad that made it impossible for me to pass such a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity up. I wanted to take the experience and increase my cultural competence, independence and journalism skills in a foreign country, and so I decided that I couldn’t graduate without living and learning in another country.

During my senior year, an admittedly later than average time to pursue studying abroad, I made an appointment with an advisor at my school’s study abroad office to go over my options. In this meeting, I quickly realized how wrong I had been in assuming all study abroad programs were out of my price range. My advisor clued me into the fact that direct enrollment programs are one of the best ways to find affordable study abroad.

What's Direct Enrollment?

With direct enrollment, students are able to enroll as visiting students in regular classes at foreign universities. By choosing this option, students pay tuition to the foreign university directly, thereby cutting out the middle-man of a program provider. In many cases, students who directly enroll will also have to pay a fee to their home university to study abroad or transfer credits.

In addition to cluing me into the option to directly enroll, the University of Maryland, like many other universities, also offers exchanges. Exchanges are similar to direct enrollment in that you are enrolled as a visiting student at a foreign institution. However, with an exchange program, you pay your tuition directly to your home university since a student from the university abroad is taking your place at your university and paying their tuition overseas. This can make the process even smoother (especially when it comes to credit transfers) and the cost even lower!

My university had agreements for exchange programs with universities in Australia, Sweden, and China. I am a huge outdoor and animal enthusiast, and wanted to be somewhere I could write for a local newspaper in English, so I decided to do an exchange in Melbourne.

Apart from the cost of a return plane ticket, a small fee for foreign students and the jump in housing costs in Melbourne, my semester down under cost the same as a semester at the University of Maryland. Looking back to my freshman year way of thinking, I could never have imagined this would be possible!

Direct Enrollment vs. Program Provider Cost Comparison

I know from my personal experiences that direct enrollment is the best-kept secret for studying abroad cheaply, but let’s take a look at what the numbers. Here is a cost comparison for how much it costs for a student who directly enrolls at the University of Cape Town in South Africa versus a student who enrolls in the Study Abroad program at University of Cape Town through a 3rd party program provider.

Semester at University of Cape Town: Direct Enrollment

  • Fees for international visiting student: $1,000
  • International Term Fee: per course $2,630 x 4 courses = $10,520
  • Average housing cost: $555 per month x 5 months = $2,775
  • Total Estimated Enrollment Cost: $14,295

Semester in Cape Town with A 3rd Party Provider

  • Total Enrollment Cost (includes tuition, housing and on-site support): $18,350

Neither cost breakdown includes the cost of airfare, meals, local transport, visa or personal expenses. In this case study, a student who directly enrolls at the University of Cape Town versus going through a program provider saves a total of $4,055 -- a significant amount.

These numbers differ so greatly mostly because program providers charge more for the onsite support they offer.

“As a rule, studying abroad is less expensive via the direct enroll route because you don’t pay for fees associated with hiring a provider,” said Caela Provost, North American Officer at University College Cork in Ireland.

Caela contended that direct enrollment is cheaper for students interested in studying at her university because “US schools tend to be more expensive than UCC per semester,” she said.

“Overall, direct enroll is the path I often recommend to students who are aiming for academic excellence, memorable travel, and fiscal responsibility,” she added.

Caela went on to detail the cost breakdown of an international student attending UCC for the spring semester.

University College Cork Direct Enrollment Cost Breakdown

  • Tuition and fees: 7,000 Euros
  • Average housing cost: 2,300 Euros
  • Total Estimated Enrollment Cost: 10,300 Euros / $11,300 USD

3rd Party Provider in Cork Cost Breakdown

  • Total Enrollment Cost (includes tuition, housing, and on-site support): $17,300

As is the case with University of Cape Town, direct enrollment students at University College Cork will save a significant amount, this time an estimate of $6,000.

Linda Angell, Director of the International Exchange Office at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, agreed that direct enroll is also an effective cost saving option for international students interested in this university.

“Direct enroll can be a very affordable option for many students and should be considered a very viable option,” she said.

“Students coming from many US universities will find AUS tuition to be very affordable. Many of the one-way programs add on some extra charges to cover their overhead and some of the extra amenities. Direct enroll students can avoid those extra charges, and still benefit from a very high level of support from the large team of staff and Peer Advisors in the Office of International Exchange Programs.”

While it is usually the case that direct enrollment programs are a lower cost than program providers, this is not always true. The cost difference can be a wash if your chosen university has high fees for international students or if the housing cost in the university’s area is very high.

The Challenges of Direct Enrollment

While the numbers prove that direct enrollment can be a more affordable option, “it doesn’t go without its challenges,” said Nicole McDermott, a study abroad advisor at the University of Maryland College Park. “However, I think it’s definitely an underexplored study abroad route,” she added.

One of the biggest deterrents to direct enrollment is the perception that there will be less onsite support.

“I think when students hear ‘Direct Enrollment’ they associate it with a lower level of onsite support and less of a structure for them to get folded into,” said Nicole. “Students will do the more expensive route because there is a certain amount of comfort that they are willing to pay for.”

Yet in some cases, the amount of support is virtually the same for students who directly enroll when compared to students who go through program providers.

“At American University of Sharjah (AUS), incoming direct enroll students receive intensive support in a wide variety of ways, from before their arrival and through their smooth transition back to their home university,” said Linda.

At AUS, direct enroll students apply through an online application process, and an advisor communicates extensively with them in the days and weeks leading up to their arrival. All incoming study abroad students go through an eight-day orientation upon their arrival during which they have cultural and practical workshops, attend outings to Sharjah and Dubai, finalize their visas, and get to know local students.

“Throughout their time studying at AUS, direct enroll students are encouraged to attend the wide range of outings and events sponsored by our Office of International Exchange Programs and we celebrate all birthdays with donuts and coffee in our lounge area,” added Linda.

“The semester always finishes with a farewell dinner at a local, Arab restaurant, and of course, we stay in touch with students via our various social media long after they have returned home.”

Another struggle with direct enrollment is that it requires students to be more proactive.

“It takes a particular type of student to be successful with direct enrollment,” said Nicole. “Getting information from universities can be challenging and usually takes students being persistent in their follow up."

The types of students who thrive with direct enrollment programs tend to be students who have traveled before, are proactive, independent, comfortable with a high level of ambiguity and have a good amount of academic flexibility. Direct enrollment programs usually require more planning in advance.

Additional Benefits of Direct Enrollment

While the direct enrollment study abroad option is not without its challenges, for the right student it is rife with benefits that extend beyond cost saving measures.

For starters, students who directly enroll at an institution where they speak the native language will have more course options than students who go through program providers. This is because these students will have a whole university curriculum to choose from, not just the courses a program provider offers.

Students who study at institutions where English is not the native language and they do not speak the local language at a high level may find their course selection to be more limited. This is because some institutions have a limited number of courses taught in English. However, students who directly enroll at these institutions will find increased opportunities to learn the language.

“Direct enrollment programs are highly immersive because you are directly integrated into the university culture,” added Nicole. “You have to use the language all the time, not just in your language class. You learn how to conduct day to day communications both written and oral.”

In addition to the language benefits, the benefits of such high immersion are substantial.

“Direct enrollment programs put students in a position where they can really create their own study abroad experience,” said Nicole.

“It gives a very authentic experience and is very empowering. It may be challenging at first, but when the student finishes a whole semester abroad, they develop a lot of really important skills, [for example] risk assessment, independence, time management, and flexibility.”

With this in mind, direct enrollment programs also offer the most potential for student growth.

“Students have a lot of room to grow in doing direct enrollment,” Nicole said. “It forces them to take responsibility and really engage in their pre-departure process and to be really good at finding information and reading things. They will learn a lot about their institution before they even go. Others programs just hand them information.”

Direct Enrollment Made the Impossible Possible

By doing an exchange at RMIT University in Melbourne, I experienced many of the benefits of direct enrollment first hand. By going abroad as the lone student from my home university, I was forced to step outside my comfort zone and make friends with local students as well as other international students. I made friends from around the world, many of whom are still close to me today.

I also learned to navigate a foreign institution independently of my peers which gave me more confidence to challenge myself in the future. By having this travel experience on my own I also learned a set of travel skills that gave me the necessary background to continue to feel comfortable traveling independently in places including Europe, Central America, and even Morocco.

By going abroad as a direct enrollment student, my costs were just slightly higher than my costs for a semester at the University of Maryland. This option opened the world to me. Indeed, during my semester in Australia, I discovered that the cost savings were just the tip of the iceberg of benefits for directly enrolling at an institution overseas.