An Expert Study Abroad Plan (Part Two: Shopping)

In Part One, we provided some basic information on the process and procedures you should consider when starting a search for a study abroad program. Now you get to figure out where to go. This is the fun part: shopping!

Before shopping, think about the budget. Find out what the home university policy is regarding home school tuition for study abroad. If you are required to use home school tuition for study abroad, financial aid packages will simply extend to a study abroad program. This includes university-provided programs and faculty-led programs operated by the home university. Faculty-led programs, most often held during the summer, are growing in popularity. They feature a professor from the home university leading an exploration into her area of interest, immersing students into a specifically-themed program. Faculty-led programs offer an alternative to taking courses with students from other schools, in what is called a provider program.

When going outside of university programming, and paying directly to the program provider, you should still process a FAFSA form and work with the financial aid office at your home university to adjust the cost of instruction. Financial aid received, either from the government or the home school, will likely be applied to study abroad for an eligible program operating in the normal academic year. Going through the pre-approval steps outlined in Part One of this guide will ensure the student's financial aid eligibility is met. For summer and off-season programs, aid options are fewer. A student can generally utilize Federal Stafford Loans, and there are some alternative private financing options and scholarships available.

If the provider offers a comprehensive package including travel to and from the program, weekend excursions, supplemental insurance and some money for incidental expenses tied to the program (museum admissions, guided tours, etc.) then their price is what financial aid would call the "cost of instruction." If some of these items are not included, add them to the program cost in the student's Financial Aid submission. This is an important consideration because funding in the student loan and grant processes will extend to study abroad, but you can't really study abroad without these added costs — like flights. As a recap: make sure to explore what exactly is included in the cost of the study abroad choice, and then fill in the missing pieces when applying for Financial Aid.

With a better sense of budget, you can now start to explore providers and destinations. At the low end of cost are Exchange Programs, which allow American students to attend a foreign university in exchange for a foreign student attending the American university. In these programs, the foreign university will have an international student office similar to the study abroad office at home. The student will find with a wide mix of international students as well as those from the host country. You'll have contacts in the international student office, be in classes with local students, and students from all over the world.

Where those other international students come from can be anticipated by looking at the host university's web site; almost all have a prominent "international students" section. The good news here is that even in non-English speaking countries English is the standard second language at universities. This means that the foreign students are likely attending classes in English or at least conversant in English. For example, with an exchange program in Germany, the roommate may be from somewhere else in the world, but would be able to carry on a conversation in either German or English.

In addition to exchanges, another low-cost option is direct enrollment in the foreign university. This "free mover" concept is becoming more popular at universities around the world, allowing attendance for a semester option. Many foreign universities also offer an International Summer School for students from all countries. These are specifically designed for international students, attended only by students from outside the host country, and offer true global immersion, providing a unique worldview of that country. The International Summer Schools will often have fairly active activities planned for time outside the classroom. Abroad101's directory study abroad programs details both exchange and direct enrollment programs, providing a listing for each university worldwide.

Another popular way to study abroad is through a third-party provider. These organizations are outside companies or U.S. universities that take care of all the details, from travel, to orientation, to local housing, and overseeing the academic program. Bigger providers will have foreign-based advisors, directors, and local support staff; some even have their own study centers and dormitories. The classes may be held only with American students, or be held at foreign universities with carefully selected courses that will ensure a successful credit transfer to the student's home university.

Providers pride themselves on their added services and most cater exclusively to American students, providing a bridge from the environment the student left to the environment the student is entering. As you consider providers, compare their housing, activities, and extra programming, as well as their social, residential, and academic support. Some foreign universities are very open to working with providers and work with many; the University of Westminster in London, Florence University of the Arts, and Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona / UAB are some of the most popular. In other cases, the only way to a certain foreign university is through a provider, as those universities aren't structured to work with semester and short-term American students.

As a final reminder, before committing to anything, talk to home university advisors at both academic and administrative levels. Check the options for scholarships and funding alternatives before doing too much shopping; then, be a wise consumer when looking at the pros and cons of each option.

As a general rule of thumb, you get what you pay for, so the more expensive programs will offer extra support and services and the lower cost programs will sacrifice some of this in exchange for their lower price tag. Since those who study abroad usually do it only once, factor this against the price tag. Don't let price keep you from going. There are options for everyone.