Should You Study Abroad Through Direct Enrollment or a Program Provider?

Direct enrollment versus study abroad programs

During the fall semester of my senior year of college, I decided I couldn’t graduate without taking advantage of the opportunity to spend a semester in a foreign country.

Yet it seemed my time for studying abroad had passed. My university has a rule that your last semester of credits had to be taken on campus, and the majority of credits that I still needed to graduate had to be taken on campus as well.

By doing a direct enrollment, I got to take classes and live with Australians, as well as form friendships with fellow exchange students from Europe and Asia.

Studying abroad meant I would graduate a semester late -- a fact that was not exactly appealing with pressures to finish my degree and enter the work force as soon as possible. But as my time to walk across the stage and receive a diploma grew nearer, I realized that if I didn’t choose to study abroad it would be something I would always regret.

Two of the primary reasons I had not explored study abroad options earlier in my college career were my perceptions about program options and the cost of study abroad. I had the mistaken impression that the only way to study abroad was to pay a hefty price for tuition and go with a large group of students from my university. I was afraid that if I studied abroad on one of these programs I would have limited opportunities for independent exploration and wouldn’t get to immerse myself with locals.

What is Direct Enrollment?

But then I met with an advisor at my university and she told me about the many other options that exist for study abroad -- including direct enrollment, where you enroll directly in a foreign university as an exchange student, rather than going through a third party program provider.

Study abroad

I decided to pursue this option and directly enrolled with RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia for a semester even though it meant delaying my graduation by a semester.

Though nearly five years have passed since my time in the land down under, my spring semester in Melbourne was one of the best experiences of my life. By doing a direct enrollment, I got to take classes and live with Australians, as well as form friendships with fellow exchange students from Europe and Asia.

Should You Study Abroad with a Provider or Do Direct Enrollment?

One of the major decisions you'll face when pursuing study abroad is whether to do direct enrollment at a foreign university or to go through a program provider. There's no one right way to study abroad and it's important to remember there is no one right way to study abroad and to consider your needs as an individual.

Here’s five questions to ask yourself to help chose between doing direct enrollment or going through a program provider for your study abroad experience.

1. How independent are you?

Going overseas can be a daunting experience, especially if it is your first time out of the country.

For students who are less comfortable with going abroad, program providers can often provide a lot of support, such as visa assistance, travel arrangements, airport pickups, and local accommodation that will help with the transition. Most program providers offer group programs, so you will be studying with other students from the United States. For some, having this built in support network of students with similar backgrounds can be very helpful.

For students who are more comfortable with going abroad, directly enrolling in a local institution can provide a welcome change from their normal university setting. By directly enrolling, you will be able to take classes with local students and taught by local professors. You will have the opportunity to be one of few students from your home university and make new friends with different backgrounds.

In addition to navigating the social scene independently, however, when you directly enroll in a foreign university, you will have more responsibility over academic logistics and living arrangements. You will be responsible for enrolling in the proper classes and ensuring you get credit for them upon your return. At some foreign universities there is no dormitory or on-site housing, and exchange students will be responsible for finding accommodations on their own.

Program providers can provide a greater level of support for academics and other issues of concern such as class placement and housing.

2. Where do you want to go?

Studying abroad is an exciting opportunity to explore a new place. Where in this big, beautiful world do you want to go?

Certain locations automatically make it easier to directly enroll by having universities where curriculum is similar to the United States and courses are taught in English. These include countries such as the United Kingdom, Malta, Australia, New Zealand, or Canada. Some countries are also culturally similar enough to the United States that students can manage living and learning with minor adaptions.

study abroad with a program provider

If you are interested in going to a country where English is not widely spoken, going with a program provider may make the experience more manageable. Similarly, if you're interested in going to a certain country to study a language, it may be difficult to find language courses on the country’s native language at a regular university. Not to mention, you'll have to already have an excellent command of the local language to enroll in classes at a local university. Program providers can help you meet this object all over the world.

Safety is always a consideration when studying abroad. If you're interested in going to a country but worried about feeling safe, program providers can provide added support and infrastructure to help you explore while staying safe. Additionally, to study in some countries, such as Cuba, you will have to go with a program provider.

Generally, the more off the beaten path a study abroad destination is, the greater the consideration that should be given to going with a program provider. However, if you're going to a more traditional study abroad destination and have an excellent command of the local language (i.e. Australia), direct enrollment is the better option.

3. What are your learning objectives?

Of course, your most obvious objective while studying abroad will be to, well, study. So what is it that you want to learn about while overseas?

Some complex issues can be most meaningfully digested and understood when taught on a program that has been specifically tailored for that experience. For example, going through a program provider to study unique topics such as the Israel-Gaza conflict in the Middle East or educational systems in El Salvador can provide richer and more meaningful insight because the coursework has been crafted specifically for a student with your background.

If language is your main focus for studying abroad, it may also make more sense to go through a program provider so that you can study the local language at your own level. In countries where English is not the local language, program providers can also help you by offering classes on different topics in your native language.

If you're interested in going to a country but worried about feeling safe, program providers can provide added support and infrastructure to help you explore while staying safe.

If you are studying in a country where English is the local language, however, there may be no reason to go through a program provider to take the classes you want to take. Directly enrolling in a university will open up the local university’s course catalog to you and you may find the classes you need or want to take offered directly there.

If you have advanced language skills, taking classes with locals by directly enrolling can be a great way to push your language skills to the next level and offer you a more meaningful experience by studying with real locals.

Alternatively, if you want to study a subject that has strong roots in the destination you are going, such as art in Paris or English literature in Oxford, directly enrolling may give you better access to learning from subject matter experts.

4. Are you on a strict budget?

For me personally, having a strict budget was one of my biggest considerations when studying abroad. When I first heard about studying abroad I thought I would not be able to afford it due to hefty program price tags. However, as is the case with most of our dreams, if there is a will, there’s a way, and studying abroad can be affordable.

study abroad through direct enrollment

If you're on a strict budget, enrolling directly at a university may be the route for you. When you chose this option, you will most likely end up paying the local university directly and many foreign universities charge less for tuition, even if you are out of country.

Some universities overseas will allow you to directly enroll as an exchange student. This means you pay your home university the regular tuition rate directly, so it is the same cost as attending your home school for a semester or year.

In a lot of cases, since you're paying your home university, you can still apply any loans or scholarships you may have. In some cases your university may charge you a small fee for holding your place while abroad, but this is usually minimal compared to program provider fees.

Many universities and colleges also offer scholarships for students who want to study abroad. If your budget is a big concern, stop by your school's study abroad office to ask if there are any scholarship applications open.

5. How long can you study abroad for?

In an ideal world, we would all have the time to study abroad for a full semester or year, right? Unfortunately, this isn't always doable. Some college majors and course studies make it impossible to study abroad without delaying graduation, and other times life and its obligations just get in the way.

If you're unable to study abroad for a full semester or year, you can still take advantage of shorter breaks such as winter, spring or summer holidays, and study abroad by going through a program provider or a short term faculty led trip run by your university. Whether it's exploring the ecology of the Galapagos, learning Greek or studying the fall of communism in Russia, whatever your abroad fantasies may be, there is a program provider out there that will help you make them a reality.

If you only have a short amount of time to go overseas, going through a program provider can help you maximize the time you have to be abroad and earn college credits in a condensed amount of time.

What Will It Be?

In short, you should choose direct enrollment if:

  • You're on a strict budget.
  • You feel comfortable being independent and handling a lot of the logistics on your own.
  • You speak the host country's language well enough to attend college level courses in said language.
  • You're able to study abroad for a semester or full year.
  • Your learning objectives are broad, rather than specific and focused.
  • You want more interaction with local students.

On the other hand, signing up for a program run through a third-party provider (or, actually, a faculty led program sponsored by your university) might be the right fit if:

  • You can afford the program fee (scholarships and grants can help).
  • You'd rather have more support with logistics like housing, visas, travel, etc.
  • You don't feel comfortable enough with the local language to study at a college level in said language.
  • You can only study abroad for a short summer, spring, or winter program.
  • You have a very specific or focused academic goal in mind.
  • You're nervous about going abroad with no one you know.

So what will it be, study abroaders? Direct enrollment or a program provider? I hope this article helps you choose well!

Lauren Salisbury

A California native, Lauren Salisbury has found the best way to get to know a region of the world is to live there, and with that in mind has worked in four countries, including the United States, Australia, Spain and Costa Rica. Lauren earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Maryland and is now living in the Costa Rican rainforest, working as Social Media & Marketing Manager for Outward Bound. Lauren documents her travel adventures on her blog SomethingInHerRamblings.com.