Kelsie Frank: The economics of study abroad

Study abroad has become a must-have resume feature as college students prepare to compete in a global economy. Businesses have sprung up to support the enterprise, and colleges are trying to figure out their proper role in the market. The recent lawsuit brought against Wheaton College by a family challenging the school’s policy of charging home tuition for study abroad has reinvigorated discussion on this practice across the country and, closer to home, at GW.

Last semester I examined this topic for my economics thesis and analyzed GW’s use of the home tuition policy. Based on my findings, this policy has indeed brought about improvements in GW’s Office for Study Abroad. Yet the increased level of support services and other improvements cannot necessarily justify GW’s profit from this policy.

GW’s policy of charging home tuition and fees is actually an increasingly common practice among American colleges. According to a recent survey by the Forum on Education Abroad, 18 percent of institutions have students pay full home school tuition, room and board, and the institution pays the program expenses including room and board. Another 29 percent report that students pay full home school tuition but pay for their own room and board abroad. In all, 47 percent of schools now charge home tuition, with the number of institutions adopting this policy increasing each year.

The implementation of this policy enabled GW to significantly improve its Office for Study Abroad by increasing the availability and expertise of its staff, centralizing program information and offering students the flexibility to take scholarships with them while participating in programs around the globe (which is actually not a common policy). Additionally, this policy has not discouraged students from studying abroad. Instead, the increased support and scholarships have enabled more students to benefit from study abroad every year.

That being said, GW’s policy of charging home tuition has been good business. Based on GW tuition, room and board, university-funded scholarships and average study abroad program costs (for the regions of Asia/Oceania, Europe, Latin America, North Africa/Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa), the University will stand to make money from the approximately 1,000 students studying abroad during the 2007-2008 academic year.

The cheapest place to study abroad is Latin America, where the average academic year program cost (including tuition, room and board) is $20,755, based on a random sample of 30 programs in the region. And not surprisingly, the most expensive is Europe with an average academic year program cost (including tuition, room and board) of $28,122. With GW’s own enormous price tag well known, therein lies the seed of discontent. Students do the math and suspect their own university is taking advantage of them.

So do GW students play the system and study in the more expensive locations? GW students attend more programs in Africa and Asia compared to national trends and participate less in European programs. The interests of GW students could explain the popularity of African and Asian destinations; 40 percent of GW students abroad for the fall 2007 semester were international affairs majors. Nationally, more students go to Latin America, the region with the cheapest programs on average, which could suggest that students who do not pay home tuition for study abroad choose destinations with lower program costs.

While parents and students raise concerns about policy fairness nationwide, I think it’s important to remember the benefits that home tuition policy provides. It has enabled GW to provide for a more academically challenging and stimulating study abroad experience for its students. Although these improvements are quite significant, the question still remains: Is this policy the best way to realize those benefits?

The writer is a senior majoring in economics and history.

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