Study abroad appeals to more U.S. college students, but costs can mount

CHICAGO (Reuters) - While most college seniors are still hoping to land a good job after graduation, Kelsey Berg is set.

FILE PHOTO: Graduating students arrive for Commencement Exercises at Boston College in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S. on May 20, 2013. REUTERS/Brian Snyder/File Photo

After she graduates this spring, she will start a consulting position at Accenture, a business management firm based in New York. It is a coveted position she thinks she got because she did a study abroad semester in Japan that helped her to stand out from the competition.

The 21-year-old University of Minnesota computer sciences student is among a fast-growing group of students globally that are adding classroom experience in foreign countries to enhance their cultural understanding, increase language fluency and give them a boost in the competition for jobs.

Interest among American students in study abroad is growing sharply, according to a study released on Wednesday by financial firm HSBC. This year 43 percent of U.S. parents said they would consider sending their child to a university in another country. The previous year it was just 29 percent.

That impulse translates to several hundred thousand students who venture abroad at some point during college, according to the Institute of International Education (IIE). But fewer than 50,000 enroll full-time at a school abroad.

Worldwide, about 42 percent of parents consider sending their child to a college outside their home country – a substantial increase over last year’s 35 percent, according to the study of 8,000 parents globally.


Rather than struggling through a complex foreign system on their own, most American students choose programs assembled by their own universities. There may or may not be extra costs. Housing is often included, but not always, for two-week to semester-long programs.

Price varies greatly based on program and country. According to IIE, a semester could range from almost zero to $25,000 including tuition, housing, food, transportation to and from the country, and other travel. Most study-abroad students spend weekends traveling with peers to nearby countries and cities, adding an untold amount.

Berg’s semester in Japan added about $7,000 in costs above what she owed the University of Minnesota for a regular semester, she said.

Jeff Birnbaum, a New York financial planner, has been surprised by unanticipated costs of his son’s program in Japan. Although his son is on a Grinnell College program that covers most costs and provides a scholarship, Birnbaum pays for food and high transit costs for the daily half-hour commutes from student housing to the college. That adds about $2,500.

Thomas Yorke, a financial adviser from Red Bank, New Jersey, paid for his daughter to become fluent in Spanish through a study-abroad trip to Spain. One costly snafu occurred when she needed to stay in a hotel for nine days while looking for an apartment. As she tried to withdraw 500 euro for the apartment deposit from an ATM, it ate the card because she exceeded her withdrawal limits. The family wired money -- with fees.

“You must be very careful as you plan ahead,” said Yorke.


Yorke’s younger daughter is now considering studying in Ireland. His advice is that the cost of study abroad is too hefty for her to spend impulsively.

“We have a lot of talking to do,” said Yorke. “I do not want her to just know how to order pints in a pub.”

As college grads in social sciences and humanities still struggle to find jobs in their fields, study abroad may not deliver the edge they want from it.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers surveys employers and found study abroad and language fluency last among criteria used to hire new college graduates. The top attribute is internships; preferably with the company doing the hiring. Also near the top of their criteria: problem-solving, teamwork, communication skills and leadership.

Study abroad can enhance those skills, but the IIE advises students to emphasize that in interviews and resumes rather than just listing a program.

Berg did just that during her job interview with Accenture, when the interviewer asked her to name her favorite city. It was Tokyo, a city the interviewer coincidentally had just left, and consequently they had a lively conversation.

Editing by Beth Pinsker and Dan Grebler