Study Abroad

Is the Option to Study Abroad Realistic for All Students?

"I'd love to study abroad, but I can't afford it." Raise your hand if you've ever heard someone say this -- or said it yourself. Everyone? That’s what I thought.

Though study abroad has become an increasingly popular -- and in some cases, mandatory -- aspect of higher education, for many students in industrialized nations, there’s still a strong perception that spending a semester in another country is just for rich kids, especially rich white kids.

While it’s true that there are a number of costs traditionally associated with studying abroad, and that it has historically drawn mostly white, upper-middle-class students, those demographics are changing to reflect more diverse student body populations and growing interest in non-traditional study abroad locations (like outside of western Europe, for starters).

That doesn’t mean there isn’t still a long way to go in terms of making study abroad an attainable option for all students, regardless of socioeconomic status, but there are steps being taken in the right direction. As of the 2012-2013 academic year, 35 campuses in the US had a study abroad participation rate of more than 70% among their undergraduate student body -- and those schools aren’t all 70% white and wealthy.

So why does this troubling stereotype persist, and how do we get rid of it once and for all?

What Does it Really Cost to Study Abroad?

We all know going to college isn’t cheap to begin with -- and that price tag only goes up when you throw in extras like plane tickets, visas, city transportation, meals, a new cell phone and plan, and additional travel costs, not to mention potentially going without income from a work-study or off-campus job. That up-front investment cost may appear prohibitive for most students without a bottomless savings account or some very generous family members.

All of this adds up, and it adds up to a lot: for the 2012-2013 academic year, the average cost of a semester abroad for a student based in the US was $17,785, according to the Institute of International Education.

Still, that high number can be misleading. For one, that's usually not $17,785 in addition to your usual at-home tuition. Depending on how much you're already paying, study abroad could actually end up being the same amount or less than a semester at home.

Secondly, it's not how much every student pays. Some destinations, like Costa Rica or China, are much more affordable than traditional study abroad destinations, and students can often offset costs with study abroad scholarships, student loans, or going overseas for a shorter program. Recently, we broke down the cost of studying abroad in our own small attempt to dispel this myth.

Nonetheless, the cost of study abroad and often simply the perception of the cost of study abroad keeps some students from believing it's an option for them. Yes, study abroad isn't exactly cheap and cost can be a barrier, but often a little searching around and a solid study abroad advisor could put you on the path to affording it.

Sometimes, It's Who You Know

Speaking of perception, sometimes it's this simple perception of what it means to travel overseas that can influence or fail to influence a student to participate in a study abroad program.

As Chrissie Faupel notes in her article, "Why Don't More Minorities Study Abroad," students are far more likely to study or travel abroad if they know someone who has also been abroad. As a result, students who have parents or family members who have studied or traveled abroad have a higher chance of participating in a study abroad program themselves than those who don't.

As Chrissie says, "not only is there a fear of the unknown, there is also the possibility that the families of these participants don't encourage studying abroad. There's a cycle here -- when we value travel, we encourage others to travel."

What this means is that study abroad program providers need to adjust their marketing so that they don't assume their audience inherently knows the importance of overseas travel. Study abroad students need to encourage their friends to study abroad. The more we talk about study abroad, the more we expose others to the reality that this. is. a. possibility.

Study Like a Girl

One interesting way in which study abroad departs from some historic patterns of privilege is the fact that participation in study abroad programs skews heavily female.

Women account for about 64% of US students abroad, and that ratio has barely changed in the past decade. So, when we talk about making study abroad more accessible, we don't just mean to students of lower income or from families who've never traveled, we also -- strangely enough -- mean men.

There’s no one explanation for why men study abroad at lower numbers than women. Some attribute it to the fact that highly intensive majors like engineering, which supposedly have little wiggle room for students to take off a semester (not true, by the way), tend to be more male-dominated, while others simply point to the fact that universities overall have more female than male students; an estimated 57% of US university students are women.

Still, neither of those factors are significant enough to explain the majority of women choosing to study abroad -- especially given the fact that women are often at greater risk than men for sexual harassment or assault while abroad.

In fact, students majoring in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields actually accounted for the largest growth in study abroad participation, increasing 9% from the previous year, and outpacing social science majors. Plus, there are still more women than men among STEM majors studying abroad, so “women can’t do math” doesn’t apply here (or anywhere. But I digress).

Another theory posits that women’s ability to move between and adapt more easily to new social groups makes them more likely to be open to studying abroad, while men are more hesitant to leave their social comfort zone once they’ve found it and that the “life-changing” rhetoric many programs use to market study abroad is more effective on women than men.

However, just because women as a whole have “leaned in” to study abroad programs, that doesn’t mean everything is equal over on the double-X chromosome side of things. Of the women studying abroad in the 2012-2013 academic year, 76% identified as white -- though white students only account for about 60% of all US college students.

Racism and Discrimination: At Home and Abroad

Let’s be honest for a second here -- we do not live in a post-racial America, much less a post-racial world, whatever that means. Students from US institutions studying abroad are still disproportionately white, meaning that minority students still face additional hurdles when it comes to studying abroad.

According to IIE data, of the students who studied abroad during the 2011-2012 academic year, more than three-quarters (76.4%) identified as White. The other quarter was split into 7.7% Asian, 7.6% Latino or Hispanic, 5.3% Black or African American, 2.5% multiracial and 0.5% Native American. The numbers were even worse the following year, when just 15.7% of US students abroad identified as students of color.

Much of that disparity has to do with access on the home front -- since many universities and colleges themselves are still disproportionately white, it’s in some cases reflective of the undergraduate population as a whole that most students going abroad are white.

Even as universities implement affirmative action initiatives and other strategies to increase racial, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity on campus, the achievement gap and other factors still result in predominantly white campus populations at many schools -- and those are, for the most part, the students going abroad (though not all of them!).

There is another factor, though, and it’s important to talk about, even though it’s not something most study abroad programs want to put in their marketing materials. Students of color are sometimes wary of studying abroad in certain countries because of concern -- not always unfounded -- that they may face additional discrimination there, especially if they’re clearly and identifiably foreign.

Understandably, some minority students don’t want to be responsible for taking on racial ambassador duties, and may feel discouraged from studying abroad in places where they will be seen as “extra” foreign -- or, alternately, face discrimination based on local attitudes.

This contributes to a cycle that's hard to break -- if you don't know anyone who has traveled or studied abroad, you're less likely to do it, and therefore less likely to influence anyone else to do it. One way to work toward breaking that cycle could involve more outreach to parents and families to encourage them to support their students to study abroad, even if they'd be the first member of their family to do so.

Self-selection can also come into play for other groups of students that may face discrimination or additional difficulties, including LGBTQ students, students with certain religious affiliations or beliefs and students with disabilities.

One major challenge for universities and study abroad program providers is how to guarantee students’ safety while also ensuring that students from more marginalized groups still have access to all of the same opportunities as any other student.

What Does the Future Hold?

It’s fairly difficult to find solid socioeconomic data on students going abroad. Still, most people tend to cling to the image of study abroad participants as rich kids gaming the system to go gallivanting around Italy drinking wine and spending their parent's money for six months.

While this image might be a little extreme, the basic reality of the costs associated with studying abroad can often make programs seem like something out of reach. In addition to the issue of the upfront cost is that of opportunity cost -- students from low-income families, for example, are more likely to be working at least part-time in order to help support their studies.

While financial aid may transfer over to a study abroad semester, off-campus jobs aren’t guaranteed to be there when you get back, and for many students, that income is something they simply can’t afford to go without for five or six months, much less lose.

This is exactly why it’s so important, though, for all students -- even those who don’t necessarily think they’re interested in spending a semester abroad -- to have access to comprehensive information about funding, scholarship and aid options for study abroad, and yes, even part time jobs abroad while you're studying.

There are plenty of people and organizations out there ready to do everything possible to make sure you have the chance to go abroad, even -- or especially -- if you’ll be the first person in three generations to even have a passport.

Let's Solve This: How Can We Make Study Abroad More Accessible?

Although we could write an entire article on how the institutions and programs themselves could make studying abroad more accessible, it really just starts with students knowing their options and dispelling some of the myths surrounding study abroad. Namely, students need to understand that:

  • Study abroad isn't always as expensive as you might think; and you can get help to pay for it.
  • There's a program that can accommodate every student's workload and schedule.
  • It's safe, and the world outside your hometown (or country) isn't as big and scary as it seems. We promise.

Below are some action points for students to take and make study abroad a reality for yourself:

Find a place for study abroad to fit in your schedule

If you're a college freshman or haven't yet entered college, plan out which semester will work best for you to study abroad. Although most students take off in their junior year, some schools will allow students to go overseas befor or after that.

Furthermore, if you know in advance that you'll be abroad spring or fall of your junior year, then you can better plan on when to take those classes that are only offered in spring / fall semester or every other year. You can also save certain credits (like language) for when you're abroad, rather than at home. Work your study abroad into your schedule just as you would any other course.

For students with particularly demanding majors, consider if you can do your senior thesis or research project overseas, rather than at home. And for everyone else who has demanding academics, a part-time job, sport, or other responsibility, don’t rule out a summer, winter, or spring study abroad program.

Plus, if you can get credit for all your summer courses, you may be able to fulfill enough requirements to enroll part-time once you’re back, or even graduate early, saving a whole semester of tuition and time.

Ask for financial aid and / or student loans

Before committing to any study abroad program, you definitely want to make sure that any financial aid you’re receiving from your university, the government or other sources will continue to apply to your tuition for study abroad.

Most university and federal aid can be applied toward study abroad, as long as you’re still enrolled as a full-time student at your home university. So, if you’re lucky enough to have a generous aid package, you should be sure that you can keep using it, no matter where you are.

Unfortunately, work-study typically can’t be applied to study abroad, so you should talk to your financial aid office to determine whether any other options are available to you while you’re away. Ideally, you should do this the year before you plan to study abroad, since financial aid is typically determined on a yearly basis, and you want to have as much time as possible to confirm your financial aid status and make sure you won’t lose it.

For more details, read our guide to student loans and studying abroad.

Seek out scholarships

There are tons of scholarship opportunities for study abroad students -- and many of them are even designated specifically for students from historically underrepresented groups.

The main issue is that many people simply don't apply, but that means if you do choose to apply, you've got a good shot at cutting down on some expenses. To give just one example, we caught wind of one study abroad scholarship that offered 7 $1,000 scholarships, yet only 15 people applied. Even we non-math people can tell that those are fantastic odds!

The study abroad and fellowships offices at your university are great resources when you’re beginning your funding search. They’ve done this before, and can often tell you exactly which awards or loans you may qualify for, thus saving you a lot of time with Google. Your university may have its own awards and scholarships for students that fit your profile, or have connections with organizations that support students just like you -- and did we mention that we even offer our own scholarships here at Go Overseas?

Reach out to support groups and alumni

One barrier to study abroad that's hard to address is lack of exposure or not knowing anyone like yourself who has studied abroad. To this, we say find an alumni of a study abroad program you relate to or a student support group. E-mail them. Talk to them. Consider reaching out to groups on campus in addition to your study abroad advisor.

Sites like Diversity Abroad also contain a wealth of information for students from all walks of life -- from students with disabilities to those who identify as LGBT -- interested in going abroad, with resources to help you navigate everything from selecting the right program to tracking down scholarships to finding cheap airfare.

We Want a World Where Everyone Can Study Abroad

Study abroad has a long way to go toward being egalitarian -- but much of that has to do with the higher education system itself. While that battle isn’t going away anytime soon, there are many positive steps being taken within the field of study abroad to make these programs more accessible to all students.

Programs that may have until recently been out of reach for all but the wealthiest and most well-connected are now openly and actively encouraging a broad and diverse range of students to participate -- and making sure that they won’t be sacrificing anything more than missing out on some fun parties back at home by doing so.

So before you take yourself out of the running, or lump study abroad in the same unaffordable luxury category as a Louis Vuitton bag, look again. No matter who you are, where you come from or how much (or little) cash there is in your checking account, you’re entitled to the same right -- and opportunity -- to study abroad as anyone else.