Odds Without Ends

St. John’s recently unveiled a slew of new study abroad opportunities for students to participate in, allowing them to travel to countries such as France, Italy, Mexico, and England for the Fall, Spring, or Summer semesters.

The increased study abroad programs are all a part of the University’s attempt at getting even more students to study overseas, which is a growing trend at many colleges across the country.

Last year, the Institute of International Education found that over 200,000 American students study at foreign universities each year – more than double the amount that went abroad a decade ago.

With more universities, such as St. John’s, offering even more opportunities to go overseas, that number may grow even higher in the next few years.

But more than a few students I know have asked themselves one important question: can I afford the economic burden of studying abroad?

Last summer, the New York Times published an article regarding the cost of studying abroad, noting that various American universities overcharge their students.

More specifically, it reports that studying abroad independently could be significantly less expensive than traveling overseas through an American college.

The Times article highlights Brendan Jones, a former student at Columbia University. Jones studied abroad independently at Oxford University several years ago, but not through a Columbia-run program.

Despite studying at Magdalen – a college in Oxford ranked higher than the one where Columbia sent students – Jones was unable to transfer those credits over when he came back to America. Columbia, according to the Times article, said it only allowed students to gain credit from programs it had approved.

It does make sense for American universities to only allow its own study abroad programs to count for college credit; after all, colleges want to make sure that the classes students take while studying abroad meet certain standards to make them worthy of credits.

However, in a case like Jones’, where he studied at one of the most prestigious colleges in England, I find Columbia’s decision rather ridiculous.

The Times noted that there are many critics of American universities’ study-abroad programs, such as Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director at the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. “What is objectionable,” Nassirian told the Times, “is, if the student decides at his or her own risk to go overseas, the outright refusal to take credit from a legitimate foreign institution.”

There’s a lot of truth to be found in Nassirian’s statement. Studying abroad can be expensive – so much so that lower-income students could be dissuaded from even trying to study overseas.

But a Times follow-up story from last week is even more disheartening. It reports that Jennifer Bombasaro-Brady, a graduate from Wheaton College in Massachusetts, is urging the state attorney general to investigate her alma mater’s billing practices for students studying abroad.

Bombasaro-Brady insists that Wheaton charged full tuition to its students to travel abroad, even though it was working in conjunction with another study-abroad program that charged significantly less.
Wheaton, she claims, pocketed the difference. As a result, she feels that she was overcharged.

The New York Times’ reporting on cases like Brendan Jones’ and Bombasaro-Brady’s has led to various investigations of American universities’ study-abroad programs.

It’s also left me with one major question: could studying abroad independently be the most affordable option when it comes to going overseas for a semester?

St. John’s Office of Study Abroad was unable to get back to me by the time of publication, so I can’t say for certain whether or not the University accepts credit from independently studying abroad. One thing I do know, however, is that St. John’s is making a terrific and respectable effort at getting more students to travel abroad.

But, given recent reports about other universities overcharging students, I would suggest that students, especially low-income ones, investigate all their options.

Going abroad independently could turn out to be the most affordable option.

Just make sure that St. John’s will accept the credits before committing to anything.