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Sunday, March 6, 2011

Study Abroad: A Free Lunch for American Universities?

I have often wondered why universities promote their study abroad programs so heavily. Brochures proclaim:
"Come to Wonder University, where we allow you to study somewhere else!"
At first I thought this was simply a marketing ploy. Prospective students learn that if they matriculate at Wonder University, the University will help them to convince their parents that funding a semester long vacation in Europe will further their education. Wonder University becomes more attractive to students desiring a long European vacation, and applications rise. Wonder's competitors then have to promote study abroad so that they don't lose the best tourists to Wonder.

I have, however, heard numerous stories of colleagues fighting with students and the administration over overseas mathematics courses. My colleagues assert that most mathematics courses available to our students in study abroad programs are so much weaker than our own courses that they cannot be allowed to count towards our major. Again and again students are devastated to hear that their "grand tour" will actually slow their progress toward a degree. The more such stories I hear, the less I believe my marketing explanation. Although there often seems to be a chasm between the concerns of the faculty and the attitudes of the student life administration, perhaps something other than marketing is at play here. When trying to understand strange behavior, a common dictum is to follow the money trail. What financial incentives do colleges have to push study abroad programs?

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article on the growing numbers of Americans eschewing American universities, enrolling in European universities instead. The driver: money. Tuition and fees at Oxford are around $5500 for Brits and around $20,500 for Americans. St. Andrews charges approximately $3000 for Brits and $20,500 for Americans. The University of Chicago and Stanford University, for example, both charge around $40,000. The difference is significant to most of us. Given this large financial gap, how much money do students save when they study abroad? At Stanford, the tuition for a year's study in California is $40,500. Their study abroad program charges $40,500. Chicago also charges its students the same tuition to study in balmy Chicago or in Scotland. Who pockets the $20,000 difference? Perhaps the American universities and their overseas partners split the difference. It would be amusing to know the details. Clearly there is enough money to be made to make everyone happy. Even the students are not losing financially, unless their foreign adventure forces them to pay for an extra semester of tuition in the U.S. Perhaps there is an occasional free lunch after all.

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