Paying for study abroad

By Julia Feldbaum

Special to The Denisonian

As Farikka Davis ‘16, from Brooklyn, N.Y., prepared for her study-abroad experience, she was confronted with financial limitations that could have affected her ability to study off-campus. After hours of calculating scholarships and loans, she has been approved—and can afford to—go abroad.

Denison was ranked 14 in a  New York Times list of most economically diverse colleges in the U.S.  And according to Denison’s own website, 97 percent of its students receive need-based or merit-based financial aid. Many receive both.

But Denison’s commitment to economic diversity can also be seen in its study abroad program. Davis only paid $300 out of pocket to attend due to her scholarships, loans and need-based aid. As a communication major and Spanish minor, she wanted to practice and improve her language skills by living in a Spanish-speaking country.

During the study-abroad application process, Davis worked closely with the financial aid office and the off-campus study office (OCS) to figure out finances. “I have a scholarship and a couple of loans. They aren’t bad though in comparison to most people, plus my loans transfer to my study abroad, as well as receiving some other things from Denison,” Davis said.

The other money Davis is referring to is $7,000 in program grant money from the off-campus study office itself. OCS at Denison has worked closely with study abroad program companies, such as Arcadia and CIEE, to create a pool of money to help finance students’ trips to study abroad. “After students have exhausted everything Denison could give them, we created a pool of grant money to help bridge the cost gap,” said Andrew Law, Denison’s director of off-campus study.

Currently, this pool of money is $200,000 for the full academic year. OCS has worked to make this grant money possible because of their commitment to the experience. “Because this is an academic opportunity, we saw it as our responsibility to provide equitable access to off-campus study opportunities,” Law said. The office has three ways of achieving this.

The first step is considering cost when evaluating a program to be placed on the “Accepting Program List” from which students choose a program. This list includes 182 different program opportunities in countries all over the world and the U.S.

The second step is to have opportunities on that list with multiple points of access. If one program is particularly expensive but must stay on the list, it is balanced with one that is more cost-efficient.

Third, the office aims to talk openly with the students about finances from day one. “We openly discuss cost and access with students, we try to be as transparent as we can about resources. We talk concretely about it rather than imagining the barriers,” Law said.

Much of Law’s time is spent working with the financial aid office, students and algorithm spreadsheets that calculate student need. “For students who have filed for need-based financial aid, the financial aid office determines the amount of aid students are eligible to use for an off-campus program according to the rules and regulations for the federal, state and university sources of aid,” said Associate Director of Financial Aid Bill Sperry. After the student has completed this, OCS is where students’ experiences and program costs converge, so it is their responsibility to work through any extra cost. Because 24 percent of the students going abroad at Denison receive program grant money, Law must distribute this money correctly and fairly.

For this 24 percent, about 60 students out of the approximate 250 per class that study off-campus during the academic year, the money received by the program grant covers the cost of the program not covered by loans or other scholarships. For an additional 10 percent, approximately 15 students, Denison financial aid alone covers the remaining costs of their program not covered by loans or scholarships.

When asked about the relationship between the economic diversity seen on campus and the economic diversity of those who study abroad Law said, “socio-economically, we map over the campus, we’ve built a program that morally and ethically responds to the needs of campus.”

But not every students get to study off-campus.  Matt Friedrick ‘15, a political science and philosophy double-major from Muskegon, Mich., had a harder time figuring out finances and didn’t end up studying abroad. “All the costs of the programs are significantly greater than how much I pay to go here because of the loss of scholarships,” Friedrick said. As a double-major, he felt overwhelmed by the extra work of applying for scholarships and loans.

Though Friedrick might have been able to piece together scholarships to make the experience work, he found it too time-consuming. “Going through the whole study-abroad application process knowing that it could fall through at any moment wasn’t worth it,” he said.

Another issue is students’ assumption that they just cannot study abroad because of their socioeconomic status. Dana Myers ‘15, a computer science major from Zion, Ill., had always assumed she couldn’t go abroad because of finances. Her freshman year, the sum of her out-of-pocket expenses was $2,000, and even that had been a struggle to pay off. “I thought I couldn’t go because of our economic situation and then I found out [a friend] was going abroad, and I had no idea,” Myers said. By the end of her junior year Myers had found out that she could have potentially afforded to study abroad, but it was too late.

Though there are struggles in financing study-abroad experiences, if students take the initiative, they can make it possible, especially if they meet with OCS. “The advising part is crucial because it’s based on people trusting the relationship they have with us and the information that we give them that keeps them in this process,” Law said. “We focus on empowering students to enter into the financial aid process and make the deadlines.”

OCS works to make the off-campus study process as accessible as possible for everyone on campus, rather than an elitist opportunity. Because of this commitment, Davis and others like her are able to study off-campus and have an experience they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford.