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The price of an international education

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The “semester” or even “year abroad” has become an integral part of many undergraduate and most graduate students curriculum. This now taken-for-granted part of the college experience even became a cultural trope. Movies such as The Spanish Inn, Foreign Student, or even Eurotrip all depict the peripeteia of students living or spending a significant lapse of time in a foreign country. The premise, however, is never put into question, but realistically: how can one afford it?

For students enrolled at American universities the question is very real indeed as the cost of a semester abroad is the same as that of one spent at their alma mater, plus all travel expenses.

Boston, a first rank university cluster, attracts students from all over the world every year. Such multicultural effervescence makes the foreign experience all the more attractive to local students and the relative proximity of Europe (a 6 to 8 hour-flight to most European capitals) all the more accessible. Or so one would think.

Whilst the number of international students enrolled at various Boston institutions is rising, partly thanks to attractive financial aid packages (especially in the case of graduate students whose population is overwhelmingly international), Boston students sometimes find it difficult to cope with the economic burden of a semester abroad. As if this consideration alone was not enough to deter them from flying 4000 miles away, finding out that enrollment at university is free (or very affordable) for residents of the country (at least outside the UK), raises even more confusion. Well, it isn’t actually free since most European countries pay high taxes to subsidize education and healthcare. What many US students do not know is that tuition and fees are used to support the foreign student on the US campus as part of the exchange.

Figures for international students at Boston College (1974 in 2013-2014, after stagnating in the 700s between 1999 and 2008), Harvard (from 2584 to 4458 between 1992 and 2013), MIT (from 9709 to 12394 between 1998-99 and 2013-14), Boston University (from 4362 to 7081 between Fall 2001 and Fall 2013), all converge. Yet there seems to be little financial incentive made to encourage US students to spend time in a foreign country. International students living in the US, conversely, often have the option to work as lecturers or as teaching assistants while taking classes and actually receive a salary, or else may be funded through a grant or exchange scheme.

Now the looming question is: who can afford not spending time abroad? Studying abroad has grown to be an inherent quality of any well-rounded student and comes to be a sine qua non condition to infiltrate the increasingly global job market as universities themselves promote it unequivocally. Michelle Obama acknowledges this paradox when she underlines the importance of studying abroad whilst recognizing the high cost it comes to for American students.

More and more workers will have, at some point or another, to spend time abroad (whether they work in consulting, the financial sector, education or healthcare) and will be asked to speak a foreign language or at least to have enough cultural sensitivity to be comfortable working in a multiethnic environment. So what can universities do concretely to prepare their students adequately and adapt to the increasingly global demands of the job market?