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How to pay for a study trip abroad

Tired of the same old campus routine? Ready to see the world?

Dreaming about a year exploring Paris? Or how about a semester in Tokyo, Rome or Sydney?

With a study abroad program, you could have the fantastic overseas adventure that you're longing for and still earn credits toward your college degree.

Finding the financing
If you're worrying about how you'll ever pay for it, don't. There are a lot more financial aid options available than you may realize.

And if a yearlong or semester program still is out of your price range, a less expensive program of three or four weeks may not be.

"Any student that wants to go should be able to have some kind of experience overseas," says William Cressey, vice president and chief academic officer of the Council on International Educational Exchange.

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It really boils down to how much you want to study and live overseas. You've got to be pretty determined to pull this off. It's not like registering and paying for classes on campus.

You'll need to do lots of research, jump through quite a few hoops and plow through a pile of paperwork to make an overseas dream a reality.

You'll need to work with an academic adviser, a study abroad adviser and a financial aid counselor.

"There's a lot of people who have to all be in sync for this to go smoothly," says Carl Buck, vice president for financial aid services at Peterson's, a provider of education and career information.

Finding a program
When should you start your study abroad research? Near the end of your freshmen year or at the start of your sophomore year is a good time to dive in.

High school students who are already dreaming about studying overseas may want to ask about study abroad options while visiting colleges and universities.

"This is a great question to ask in early college searches," Buck says. "Do comparison shopping."

The best source of information is the study abroad office on campus. The folks there will be able to steer you toward programs suitable for your major.

"There's a study abroad program available for every major on campus and more and more students are going because of that," Cressey says.

Program costs vary widely. Much depends on the cost-of-living in the country you choose and the location of the school. Studying in a small town tends to be cheaper than studying in a city, just as living in a small town tends to be cheaper than living in a city.

When researching study abroad programs, you'll want to do more than compare price tags. Every program is structured a little bit differently.

"Sometimes it covers tuition and room and board and sometimes it's just tuition and room," says Jodi Malmgren, coordinator of advising for the Global Campus at the University of Minnesota.

Some programs include air fare, others don't. Some programs include meals and weekend trips. Will you be living in an apartment or will you be living in a dorm room? All these details matter.

"There are programs in the same location that vary very widely in cost," Malmgren says.

Another thing to consider when studying overseas programs is the level of assistance and counseling you'll receive once you arrive. With some programs you'll have help every step of the way. With other less-expensive programs, you'll be much more on your own.

"Students need to balance their need for assistance and support in country with the cost of the program," Malmgren says. "The cheapest program isn't always the best bet if you're required to be on your own."

Worried that a study abroad program will push back your graduation date? Don't be.

"If you find a good program match with your curriculum, you won't have to delay graduation," Malmgren says.

At the very least, study abroad courses can be counted as elective credits. Why sit through another history lecture on campus when you could be living and studying in another country?

The more time you have to integrate a study abroad program into your course schedule, the better off you'll be. Start early and do plenty of research.

Whatever study abroad program you choose, you must get it approved by your home college and university. If you don't, you won't receive credit for the courses and you won't be eligible for financial aid.

Only students that participate in an approved study abroad program may apply for federal financial aid, including Stafford loans.

"As long as the program is accepted for credit by the student's home school than the school can award federal forms of aid," Cressey says.

Finding help at home
What about a university's own institutional aid, including scholarships and grants? Can it be transferred to a study abroad program?

"Some schools do and some schools don't," Cressey says. "The best source of information is usually the study abroad office."

The study abroad office may also have information on specific scholarships and grants that are available to students that take classes in another country.

Feel free to search for additional aid on your own. The Web can be a great source of scholarship information. Be sure to check out sites such as FastWeb and the College Board. Avoid sites that charge you to search for scholarships.

And don't limit your search to study abroad scholarships. Many different kinds of scholarships can be used for overseas study.

"Sometimes even if it's not designated as study abroad it can be used for study abroad," Malmgren says. "That is something you need to find out from the scholarship provider."

Don't overlook hometown organizations such as the Rotary Club. The Rotary Foundation's Ambassadorial Scholarship program is the largest privately funded international scholarship program in the world.

It's also a good idea to talk with a financial aid counselor who specializes in handling aid for students who travel overseas. An aid counselor can help you sort out the details of your particular situation.

If you're going to need a good deal of financial aid for your trip, you may want to start your program in the fall when more financial aid is available.

Aid coffers are filled to the brim at the start of each academic year. There may be more money available for a student who studies in Madrid in the fall than for a student who studies in Madrid in the spring.

"If you go to an aid officer in October for spring aid, some aid may be gone already," Buck says.

Plus, the bulk of financial aid money gets distributed during the fall and spring academic terms. There's very little aid available for students during summer sessions, whether they stay on campus or travel overseas.

"It's far more difficult to get financial assistance for study abroad in summer sessions than any other time of the year," Buck says.

"Even if you're staying on campus, there are very few dollars."

In addition, if there is some aid available in the summer, you may not qualify for any if you've already maxed out your aid for that academic year.

"If you're doing a program in May or summer and if you've already maxed out your aid for the year, you may not qualify for more aid. So that's something to keep in mind," Malmgren says.

As you can see, there's a lot more to studying in Paris than simply packing a bag and going. There's plenty of work to be done.

The only one who can make your travel dream a reality is you. So hop to it. There will be plenty of time for daydreaming later on the long flight over.

Finding time to have fun
Once you've got the money secured to pay for your overseas courses, you need to think about what you'd like to do outside your classes.

Do you plan on shopping and loading up on souvenirs? Will you be checking out the local nightlife? Traveling on your own on the weekends or after your program ends?

All these things cost money and financial aid won't cover it.

You may want to get a part-time job. Instead of birthday and Christmas gifts, ask family and friends for cash for your trip. Save up as much money as you can.

Every hour you work and every dollar you save will be well worth the effort. Ditto for all the forms and paperwork and meetings with advisers on campus.

Once you're away on your overseas adventure none of the hassles or the headaches you've endured will matter in the least.

Something that will matter? The grades you receive in your overseas classes. They'll be recorded on your academic record just like any other class.

So even though there's bound to be plenty of distractions, you'll still want to take your overseas classes seriously.

"The quality of your grades still matter," Buck says.

So have fun, but not too much fun, while you've got classes to attend.

-- Updated: July 18, 2003

See Also
Five tips for finding cheap travel deals
Money tips for overseas travelers
Average daily costs in various European cities
Personal and family finance glossary
More personal loan stories

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