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Is It Better to Study Abroad in High School or College?

study abroad in high school vs college

Although studying abroad in university is becoming almost a norm at some schools, high school study abroad is on the verge of breaking into the scene and so are the questions: Will study abroad mess up high school plans? College plans? Can a student study abroad with a specific major like pre-med? Can they study abroad when they are an athlete?

Though still not on the same playing field as college study abroad in regards to information readily available, going abroad in high school is still a beneficial opportunity.

But of all these questions, one of the biggest decisions is when. Should you study abroad in high school or college? Here is some detailed information to help guide you on the decision-making process:

Study Abroad in High School vs College

Before we dive into the wordy stuff, lets take a quick comparison of what it's like studying abroad in high school versus college.

High School Study Abroad College Study Abroad

The social scene is drastically different for European and American teenagers.

The social scene is much more comparable for university students.

Could be more difficult to transfer credits (unless you're an IB student or go to a study abroad friendly school).

Most collegic institutions have systems for credit transfer in place.

It's a bigger leap for most students and a bigger test of their independence.

College students have already gotten comfortable being out there on their own.

You're more likely to pick up a foreign language.

More opportunities for various levels exist.

You'll stand out on your college applications.

You'll stand out on job applications.

Less expenses to consider as a high schooler.

More time to save for study abroad if you delay until college.

Great if you're considering studying abroad in college or attending a foreign university for your degree.

Great if you want to launch an international career or become an expat abroad.

Studying Abroad in High School

Though still not on the same playing field as college study abroad in regards to information readily available, going abroad in high school is still a beneficial opportunity. In the past, the U.S. education system has been strict in what they believe to be a “good” education – which meant attending twelve years of school, then university, and after graduation, getting a job.

Now, with the onset of the Internet and international business/communication becoming more popular, international experience within education is something that is regarded as superior.

What does this mean? More people in education are realizing that sometimes high school students learn more outside of the classroom, or, for example, in a classroom located in a different country.

Here are some reasons why going overseas in high school may be your best bet:

High school abroad

1. More Likely to Make a Life of Travel

Lets just put this plainly: the younger someone begins traveling, the more apt that they will be an international citizen of the world and respect the cultures of the world more than those that stay home and decide to travel later.

Studying abroad in high school definitely takes more organization than college because it is still developing as a mode of education within the U.S. system. But the outcome of traveling and living in another country while still a teen will give a student more unique and worldly experiences than others that simply attend “regular” classes at their local high school.

This act of being “ahead” may at first seem to have students lagging behind because of missed time with traditional U.S. life events (like prom), but overall, it is truly a blessing in disguise for their future!

2. Learning a Language is Easier

It is a fact that the younger the individual, the easier it is to learn a new language. There have been studies that younger bilingual students even have gained more grey matter in their brains if they began learning another language -- especially before puberty.

Studying abroad allows students to become immersed in another language by meeting individuals that actually speak it. Instead of a book filled with grammar lessons, they can be learning the language and picking it up faster.

3. High School Students Usually Have Less Personal Expenses

In high school, most students are still living at home and don’t have money to throw at a semester abroad. When comparing high school to college, however, we may change our minds on what time period is more taxing to go overseas.

In high school, parents usually are going to need to assist the student unless the student has had a job for a while or can organize fundraising opportunities and receive scholarships. However, college students usually have loans, rent, and a car loan to be paid -- which make it terribly difficult to save for a semester.

4. Start Standing Out from College Applications Onwards

Though this shouldn’t be the main reason to go abroad during high school, if a student already has a semester abroad under their belt, they are going to be at the top of the pile of applications. The percentage of U.S. students that study abroad in total is only one percent of the entire U.S. population -- the high school numbers are barely documented. In 2010, only 2,000 American high school students went abroad, for example.

Now, after traveling and living outside of my own country through study abroad and later as an expat, my perspective has changed; if I could do high school and college over again in a different way, I most certainly would.

Now, I’m not a professional application supervisor in a local university, but I can almost guarantee this: if I had a student that wrote their college essay on their volunteer service at the local food drive, I would think it was wonderful cause and they were demonstrating their interest in helping the community -- but there would be many, many applications with these attributes.

If the next application was that of someone that had studied abroad in South Africa for a semester and had solid and interesting opinions on their own country, U.S. and worldly stereotypes, and overall education of the world, I’m positive that that student would be getting more positive attention.

5. Potential to Change Individual Goals and Direction

When being able to study abroad in high school, the perspective of living the “American Dream” of getting a college education and a good job will be skewed -- because these students will meet so many that have not taken that path in life and have been successful just the same. They will meet people or even date people that will change their perspective on their education, their culture, their opinions in politics (or perhaps even form them), on their environment, and their life goals.

After returning from abroad during high school, students may potentially want to put off college, want to go to university through a direct enrollment program in another country, or perhaps even want to take a gap year (don’t worry this is actually a really good idea, parents!) before deciding if they want to go to college or not.

Another thing to remember -- most of the world is free of the crippling debt that many American college grads have and when an American student tells their international friends about their monthly payments, many will respond with their mouths agape in shock.

Having thousands of dollars in debt is not normal in the rest of the world -- yet many are absolutely just as educated as students in the U.S.! Keep this in mind when those college applications to Ivy League’s show up at the front door!

6. Students Gain Independence with International Travel

The story is always the same -- “when my child goes off to college, then they’ll have to learn to do their laundry!” Though some have more experience with independence than others through high school, the overall factor is there – if a teenager studies in another country without their parents, independence will result... before college.

Students will need a bit of time to get used to this newfound freedom, and sometimes it is difficult to be away from home – students may have to overcome a bit of homesickness and parents have to understand they may be a bit upset about the situation too!

However, these students will be in situations that involve critical thinking – like how to deal with a train strike and still get to their destination -- and definitely give them more responsibility – like doing their own laundry and maybe even cooking their own meals! Regardless of the experience they have, they will come home with more respect for their surroundings and feel the need to have more responsibility (and will have more confidence!) throughout their daily life.

Is shyness a problem? Not after trying to complete errands in another language! Once they’re home again, speaking in English will be a breeze! Can’t seem to have your child focus on a budget? Have them save money themselves for their time abroad and they will learn to budget their funds real quick!

Studying Abroad in College

After looking in depth at some of the reasons why students should consider high school abroad, lets take a deeper look into why some students might be better off saving study abroad for college and not going overseas just yet...

study abroad in college

1. The Norm: More Classes and Companies are Available

Thoughts about going abroad in college usually begin in sophomore or junior year and it is like striking a gold mine in study abroad terms. Companies have been developed for students of this age group to assist them in their transitions abroad – companies abroad have been formed specifically for college students studying abroad to help them on weekend travel, or simply just pick the best program for them. This is why if you study in college, options are going to look unlimited.

If you’re thinking about going abroad for a specific purpose or location, this may be your best option. Hopefully there will be as much opportunity for those studying in high school in the future. But, for example, in 2015 on the Go Overseas website, we have ten pages of study abroad programs for college students in Italy (and those are only the ones listed on our site!). For high school students, there is only a page and a half listed. So, for those with a detailed plan of the study abroad experience, this may be the option that will be the most customizable.

2. Scholarships and Financial Aid are Easier to Obtain

Just like there are more programs for going abroad in college, there are more scholarships designed with juniors at university in mind. Sometimes they are dedicated to a certain major, sometimes even in certain colleges they have specific scholarships for their study abroad, but regardless, it's silly if someone wants to go abroad and doesn’t apply for at least a few of these.

Students should plan a day of drafting applications for scholarships -- some have gotten their entire abroad experience paid for if they started early enough: there are tons of scholarships specifically for helping students study abroad. And, speaking as an insider, not nearly enough students actually apply (your competition is lower than you might think!)

3. Students Can Work Through High School to Save Money

Though scholarships are a big help, travel is expensive and it takes money to complete a semester. When you study abroad in high school, more often than not, there hasn’t been much time to save or fundraise for studying abroad.

In college, especially if going abroad is a plan that has been decided years before, getting a job specifically for saving up to study abroad is worth it, and will make going abroad that much less stressful for students, and their parents.

How did I do it? Dog walking. From an early age, I had a mini business in my neighborhood; a few dollars a day to walk this dog after school, a few twenties a week to watch and feed that cat, I accumulated almost $5,000 over time and was able to pay my own way across Italy and Europe over four months -- and my family didn’t even have to help.

4. More Independent and Easier to Leave Home

Though it has already been stated in the high school section, this facet of independence is absolutely essential to put as a positive. Studying abroad is an experience that greatly increases an individual’s confidence and self-reliance, regardless what age it happens or if parents can support their children while abroad. Even the most dependent students will find themselves in situations that will need critical thinking and perseverance to conquer. Getting on the wrong train? Don’t freak out! No calling Mom!

Instead, these situations will be difficult, but are certainly achievable without outside help. The independence that students gain after these conflicts have been resolved will usually continue after they’ve returned home. This is part of that “international citizen of the world” phenomenon that happens abroad – individuals forget their country and their culture, and begin to love and respect them all.

5. More Focus on what Going Overseas will do for a Career

When studying in college, sometimes a major has been confirmed and a life path drawn out, and it is possible to have a study abroad experience enhancing the future of a student’s profession.

For example, though many go through college slightly unsure of what they truly want to do with life, there are others who absolutely are positive that they want to be a doctor and will become pre-med. It’s a lie that these focused people can’t go abroad. Poppycock, I say! How about study abroad opportunities for pre-med students, or even student-athletes looking to continue in athletics while going abroad!

With the influx of study abroad interest, there’s an influx of opportunities popping up all over the world!

6. Connections and Internships Can Turn in to Employment

If an individual knows what they want to do with their career and profession (which is far more likely for college students), they are much more ready to pursue it while abroad. An internship is a wonderful way to gain real-life experience in a field that there is interest in, but also, it is a way to gain international (and credible) experience that can go far beyond a semester abroad.

Many students at FIT abroad in Florence, Italy have internships that ask them to stay and work for the summer, or even offer them jobs for the future. Suddenly, because of a study abroad semester, students' careers can become international and extremely interesting!

But Really, Any Time is Good!

Regardless of when someone chooses to study abroad, the result will be an incredible time in life and will shape the way the student sees the world. Travel is essential to understand different cultures, languages, and people.

Truthfully, this is our problem in 2015 -- that so many refuse to learn that we are all the same, all human, all love and care for their family and friends. If we have more students studying abroad, meeting each other from different countries, and trying to understand instead of condemning something that is foreign to them, perhaps the world would be a better, more peaceful place.

Explore high school study abroad programs and college study abroad.

Photo Credits: Clara Mattheessen, high school in Italy and Fairland High School.
Lisa Saltagi

Lisa studied in Ascoli Piceno, Italy in 2010 and since has always needed to have a flight booked somewhere. After failing at office life, she flew to Italy and became a European tour-guide for a year. Now, she’s focusing on her writing while living in Florence with her husband. Check her out on Google+.