Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Not all academic institutions are created equal. Nor do they all cost the same. This is a fact of which many Swarthmore students, having chosen a private institution, are well aware. It is also a fact that begs an important question: when going abroad, should Swatties pay the Swarthmore price?
As any Swattie who has ventured abroad knows, Swarthmore policy requires students to pay Swarthmore tuition, room, and board, even though few foreign institutions demand our private liberal arts college price tag. Students can always study at any institution they wish without paying Swarthmore tuition — but not for transferrable credit.
While the precise price tags of Swarthmore study abroad programs were unavailable to The Daily Gazette, the program’s partner institutions generally have lower tuitions than Swarthmore. For example, tuition is free at the University of Buenos Aires, which partners with the Swarthmore program in Buenos Aires — even for foreigners.
“It is off-putting that my money is going to Swarthmore and they are pocketing a large sum of it,” said Danielle Seltzer ’13, who participated in the Swarthmore program in Buenos Aires.
However, according to the administration, the College actually loses money on study abroad.
“If you take the total amount of what we charge and you take from that all the money we pay to the other institutions, all the money we pay for airfare and board, the financial aid we pay and the cost of our office staff here,” said College Treasurer and Vice President for Finance Sue Welsh, “we actually have a net loss of several hundred thousand dollars.”
The administration insists that Swarthmore’s study abroad policy increases access and enhances the study abroad experience for all.
Before Swarthmore’s current study abroad policy was enacted in 1995, study abroad was a chaotic affair. Students had to identify programs, obtain faculty approval, make travel and living arrangements, and work with hosting institutions on payments — all on their own. In an attempt to reduce the daunting nature of study abroad and institute a uniform and standardized process, Swarthmore created the Off-Campus Study Office and imposed a policy of charging Swarthmore’s regular fees for all foreign study. Swarthmore pays airfare, covers living expenses, assists students in cases of political upheaval or illness, and takes care of all administrative haggling.
“We wanted to remove financial considerations from a student’s choice of a program,” Welsh explained. “We wanted students to attend the best program for them without undue influence from financial issues.”
Camila Osorio van Isschot ’12, who studied abroad in Santiago, Chile, was content with her experience.
“I was able to go abroad because Swarthmore financial aid applied,” Osorio van Isschot said. “I’m okay with [the minor cost discrepancy] because I would have to pay the ticket there and back, and they took the care of that for me.”
“One thing Swarthmore should be proud about is that 40% of students are going abroad, and of that 70% are on financial aid. That is the bigger picture,” said Patricia Martin, the Director for Off-Campus Study. Prior to 1995, financial aid did not carry over to a student’s foreign experience, and although statistics are unavailable, the administration said the percentage of students going abroad was significantly lower.
For Seltzer, the financial aid system seems to have worked. “I went based on my interest,” explained Seltzer. “Cost was a secondary issue.”
However, the centralization of study abroad through the Off-Campus Study Office has left some Swarthmore students frustrated and aggrieved with the Office’s lack of consideration and flexibility.
Emma Ambrose ’12 faced challenges dealing with the Study Abroad office while studying at the University of Oslo, Norway, another tuition-free institution. While she paid the Swarthmore price, her meager living stipend did not take into account that she was living in a country with the second-highest cost of living in the world, according to The Economist’s Big Mac Index.
“What was really frustrating was that you pay Swarthmore tuition […] and they would give me a living-expense-stipend, but they did not give me enough money to pay my rent, eat well and use public transportation. They didn’t even adjust for exchange rate drops.”
“I couldn’t buy a cucumber,” she said. Ambrose filed several requests for a stipend increase. All were denied. Ambrose claims the Off-Campus Study Office, perhaps unclear of its own policy, led her to believe that she would be compensated for the tuition difference.
“There might be a particular student who could have been just as good under the old system and have saved some money under the old system,” concedes Vice President Walsh. “But in general we think the advantages for the whole student body is greater.”
Study abroad is “seen and treated as an academic offering at the college, like academics and orchestra.” It is not a “per student, per credit, opportunity,” explained Martin.
“On campus, all students pay the same price even though one could argue that science majors cost more than humanities majors,” said Welsh. “By removing financial issues from the foreign study decision, we feel that we enhance our community.”