Gracie Riesgo’s 19-year-old son, Alex, is in his second year of university, but he’s not coming home to do his laundry anytime soon. He's studying in Madrid, nearly 6,000 miles — and a trans-Atlantic flight — away from his parents in California in the US.
“He has a traveller’s soul and is always looking for an opportunity to travel,” Riesgo said of her son’s desire to study in Spain. “We had initially said no. We thought that as a freshman, it would be too hard for him. He had never lived on his own before. But it has been a good experience for everyone all around. My son has really matured.”
Globally, almost 4.3 million students are pursuing university-level education in a country other than their own, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The countries with the largest percentage of international students include Australia, the UK, Switzerland, New Zealand and Austria, in descending order, and more than half of foreign students are Asian.
Globally, almost 4.3 million students are pursuing university-level education in a country other than their own.
“Every student who wants to succeed in the global economy should study abroad,” said Daniel Obst, deputy vice president of International Partnerships in Higher Education for the Institute of International Education (IIE) in the US. “Employers are looking for graduates who can work on multinational teams, who speak different languages, who can work easily across time zones, and who have the flexibility and adaptability you learn from going abroad.”
If your university-bound child is considering spending some time studying in another country — or getting an entire degree there — here’s what you should know.
What it will take: Your kid will need to be self-sufficient enough to handle him- or herself away from home — maybe thousands of miles away from family or friends, in a place where natives might speak a different language entirely. Language skills are a plus, if not an absolute necessity, and problem-solving ability is a must.
How long you need to prepare: Since different countries have different application requirements and timelines, you and your child should start researching programmes as soon as studying abroad becomes an interest — particularly if your child intends to apply for financial aid or scholarships to make it happen and will need a visa for that country.
Do it now: Start your research. There are a variety of study abroad programmes around the world of varying degrees of difficulty and duration. Some programmes teach classes in English. Some programmes allow you to earn a degree from two institutions at the same time. At some, the education is rigorous — at others, less so.
Employers are looking for graduates...who have the flexibility and adaptability you learn from going abroad - Daniel Obst
“I think a lot of study abroad programmes are pretty easy, and you’ve got to wonder, is this really going to be a great educational experience?” said Lynn O’Shaughnessy, a US university expert and author of The College Solution, whose daughter and son both studied abroad. “You really need to understand what kind of programme it is.” Websites such as IIEpassport.org, IESabroad.org and StudyAbroad.com are good places to start.
Find out whether credits transfer. If your university kid isn't completing a degree abroad — but rather, spending only a semester or a year there — make sure the classes count toward a degree at a local university. “You want to make sure you can get those credits that you earned,” Obst said, “to make sure you don’t have to start again.”
What people have to think about is how expensive it is just being in another country.
Know that it could cost more. If you're studying abroad through a local university, you may have to pay tuition and fees there, plus an extra fee for the study abroad programme. Then there's cost of living. “What people have to think about is how expensive it is just being in another country,” O’Shaughnessy said. “My daughter was in Barcelona, and the exchange rate wasn’t good for America, so everything was extremely expensive.”
But it could cost less. “What we're seeing in the US is an increasing number of college students going abroad for a full degree, whether it's undergraduate or graduate,” Obst said. “They're going predominantly to Europe. One of the reasons is that tuition is lower [than the US] in most places, and many of those programmes are being offered in English. You don't have to go to Germany and speak perfect German to enroll in university.”
In some places, the structure of the programme could make it cheaper than a local option. In the UK, for instance, you can often complete a master’s degree in one year instead of the more typical two. At Cambridge University, you can get a master’s in business administration in 12 months of full-time study, costing £49,000 ($69,460) in university fees. That same MBA at Harvard University in the US would cost nearly double — $68,880 in tuition and fees per year for two years — plus an extra year without a paycheck.
“That makes the UK, as a destination, somewhat more attractive,” said Jacqui Jenkins, senior advisor for education engagement at the British Council. Cost of living will depend on where you attend university, of course — London will be more expensive than Manchester, for instance — but if you can shave significant time off of your course requirements, you will likely still come out ahead as you can enter the workforce sooner.
In some places, the structure of the programme could make it cheaper than a local option.
Check with your health insurance. If your university-bound kid is still on your health insurance, make sure it covers her when she’s in another country — and preferably for more than just emergency care. If she’s part of a study abroad programme at a university in your country, there will likely be an insurance plan you can purchase from the school that will cover her abroad. There are also companies that sell insurance precisely for this purpose, such as Compass Benefits Group and HTH Travel Insurance.
Make sure your child can handle it. University is a big adjustment. University in a different country, far from home, is an even bigger leap. “There are a lot of immature students,” O’Shaughnessy said. “I think too many students see this as one big grand vacation.” Remember that problems do arise, and solving them when you're thousands of miles from home can be tricky.
Do it later: Take advantage of technology. Studying abroad now is very different than it was 20 years ago — it’s far easier to stay connected. “We talked to our daughter a lot of times through Skype,” O’Shaughnessy said. “We’d put our laptop on the dinner table and just talk to her like she was there for the meal.”
Do it smarter: Encourage them to jump in. Although it’s easier than ever to chat with your child even when she’s living on another continent, push her to get off of her computer and get involved in local life. “Students should try and really adapt and integrate into the local culture, and not be so much online and talking to their friends back home,” Obst said. “You want them to have a real experience abroad.”
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