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Tips for Making Study Abroad More Affordable

By Diane Selkirk

The perceived cost of studying abroad stops many students in their tracks. Here are 9 ways to avoid breaking the bank.

According to 2021 survey conducted by Flywire, 64 percent of U.S. students and 54 percent of Canadian students are interested in integrating global education into their postsecondary plans. While the reasons for studying abroad range from developing language skills to being better prepared for the job market, the same survey found that the single biggest hurdle to spending a semester abroad is the perceived cost.

Eighty-six percent of students said they need some sort of financial assistance to afford an international education. First, there’s the cost of flights, visa and insurance to consider. For students who live at home, they’re faced with the additional cost of paying room and board while abroad. Then there’s the price tag of weekend trips away—after all, one of the advantages of studying abroad (apart from the education and career benefits) is being able to explore an entirely new country.

However, thanks to scholarships and reciprocal agreements between home and host universities, going abroad doesn’t have to be more expensive than staying home. Here are our top tips for studying abroad without breaking the bank.

Choose a home university with a strong study abroad program

When students study abroad, they bring back the kind of new ideas, skills, connections and knowledge that not only boost their chances in the job market—they benefit society as a whole. Because of this, go abroad programs have become an integral part of many post-secondary institutions’ core offerings.

If you’re a high school student applying for university, be sure to look at each school’s study abroad programs. You want to choose a school that’s actively encouraging students to pursue part of their studies in a different place and has the numbers to back it up. Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, for example, has exchange agreements with 220 universities in 55 countries. The University of Toronto increased travel abroad bursaries during the 2018-19 academic year from $1 million to $3 million. Meanwhile, Western University in London, Ontario gives each incoming student a $1,000 international study scholarship if they maintain an 80 percent or higher average in their second year.

You’ll also want to be sure that no matter how good the programs look, the school is actively sending lots of students on exchanges. According to US study abroad data from the 2020 Open Doors Report, Colgate University, Carlton and Middlebury Colleges lead the way in sending the highest numbers of US undergraduates on international exchanges. The University of South Carolina, which came 13th on the list, points out that this meant 19 percent of their undergraduate student body participated in an education abroad experience.

Start early with budgeting and planning

You’ll need to know what you can afford and what types of costs to expect before you get too far into the process. So, crunch those numbers with your parents or an advisor.

If your school has a strong go abroad program, they are likely to have a wealth of resources for you to access including mock budget tools, information about the cost of partner schools and direct feedback from students who have gone before you.

Attend all the seminars that are offered at your school and once you’ve started narrowing down your top choices, start keeping track of the information you’re collecting.

Aquila Underwood, who is in her first year at UBC, says knowing she wants to go abroad in her third or fourth year is helping her decide what to spend money on now.

“I also have more time in my first year—so I got a job, so I’ll have more savings,” she says.

Read the fine print

Go abroad programs vary, so you’ll want to find out what is and isn’t included. Bilateral exchanges are formal exchange programs between your postsecondary institution and a partner university. This usually means that your tuition is paid to your home college or university—not the host school.

If you have your eye on attending a specific institution abroad and they don’t have a partnership with your own institution, you may be able to coordinate your own independent exchange. But be aware you’ll need an “international letter of permission,” will likely have to pay international tuition (which has a steep price tag attached to it), and will have to jump through more hoops to transfer course credits from the university abroad over to your home university.

Choose more affordable destinations

Cost of living is something you should consider when looking at your options. Many of the top 10 destinations listed by Open Doors—including the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Australia and Japan—have higher costs for things like food, housing, transportation and entertainment than you might be used to. But more affordable destinations including Mexico, Spain, Italy and Greece, all which have some English-language options, have shown steady increases in popularity.

Keep in mind smaller cities will also be more affordable than large ones. But schools that are in the suburbs or outside of cities, may come with added costs for travel, entertainment and excursions.

One option students often overlook is that partner universities also exist in your own country. If you are at school in Manitoba but always have had the urge to live by the ocean, schools in Victoria or Halifax could be a more affordable option for experiencing life in a new study location.

Seek out scholarships and consider fundraising

If you choose a university with a strong study abroad program, you’ll discover that many have scholarships, grants and bursaries specifically earmarked for students participating in formal go-abroad programs. With countries realizing the value of student exchanges, more scholarships are becoming available, including those that prioritize Indigenous and underrepresented students.

Start your search at your school’s study abroad office—many have general scholarships known as mobility grants. For example, Montreal’s McGill offers between $750 and $1500 per month of time spent on exchange, based on financial need. And at the University of Regina, there’s the International Global Scholarship.

“It’s designed to assist students with their travel costs,” says Taylor Marshall, manager of the Study Abroad & Global Mobility office. She notes that the University of Regina’s partner schools in Spain and Lithuania also have scholarship program agreements, which allow exchange students to access significant funding.

Don’t hesitate to check the scholarship lists at other schools for options your school may have missed. The University of South Carolina has an excellent list of general state and international scholarships, while the University of Calgary has a list of scholarships awarded by host destinations. Beyond school websites, check your province or state or look at national listings such as EduCanada or USA Study Abroad.

Finally, once you know what your plans are, let your friends and family know. Suggest substituting physical gifts for contributions to your savings account instead. If you feel comfortable with the idea, you can think about using a platform such as GoFundMe.

Work while you study

Holding a part-time job while you study can be a great way to get to know a new destination from another perspective. While not for everyone (you don’t want to fail classes or miss out on cultural experiences), working a few hours a week or working through a holiday might be the difference between being able to afford to go abroad and not.

Keep in mind only certain countries permit international students to hold jobs. Those that do permit employment typically have restrictions on the number of hours you can work or the types of jobs you can hold, so check your visa details.

In Germany, students with a valid student visa can work 120 days or 240 half days annually. International students with a French student visa can work 964 hours a year. Students on a New Zealand student visa can work up to 20 hours a week during classes and as much as they like during the holidays.

Pay attention to accommodation and living expenses

Not all schools have dedicated on-campus housing complete with affordable cafeteria choices, so you may need to shop around. When my daughter Maia headed to school in France, she chose state-subsidized accommodation with a very basic shared kitchen facility, assuming she would be eating mainly at the campus’s affordable cafeteria.

Had she dug a little deeper, she would have discovered the school cafeteria had limited hours and she’d be making most of her meals in an inadequate kitchen shared with her entire floor, or eating at restaurants. In retrospect, she thinks she would have been better off spending a bit more money for a dorm room or a shared apartment with proper cooking facilities.

Though it can be hard to foresee what things will be like ahead of time, take time to find peer or online reviews before committing to housing. If you are going to live off-campus, can you walk or bike to school or will you need to pay for transit? If you plan to cook, are there good grocery stores within walking distance? What are the laundry options like? Is there good public transit to get to entertainment areas?

Also, check to see if your school offers a student card that comes with perks. In France, the student card gives free access to many of the country’s best-known museums and attractions. In Germany, student fees often include a transit pass.

Calculate the cost of time

When Jessica Harcombe Fleming headed to her dream school in New Zealand, she didn’t take into account that the school year would kick off in February. As a result, when she returned to Canada, her schooling went on longer and her education costs increased.

“I ended up graduating a full semester later than the peers I’d started my degree with,” she said.

While this worked out for Fleming, and she enjoyed all the extra travel time, not every budget can stretch to accommodate an extra semester. If your course credits don’t transfer smoothly from your university abroad to your home institution, you may also need to take extra classes.

Many students say that studying abroad is one of the best decisions they made during their academic career. Not only did they have a blast travelling and building a diverse network of friends, but they had a chance to grow and mature in a new environment. Planning ahead can make your travel abroad not just possible, but a financial success.

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Verge believes in travel for change. International experience creates global citizens, who can change our planet for the better. This belief is at the core of everything we do.

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