January 31, 2008

Studying Abroad Popular Despite a Weakening Dollar

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Study abroad is often considered to be a big part of the undergraduate experience with roughly 20 percent of Cornell students taking an international semester before they graduate. Within the past year, however, the value of the dollar has declined dramatically relative to other currencies, potentially having an impact on the study abroad program at Cornell and at other universities.
The dollar has fallen about 30 percent in value compared to the euro over the last 12 months. Currently, one euro is estimated to be about $1.47 and one pound is estimated to be about $1.99. The dollar is weak, especially in Europe, which is a popular destination for travelers and students who want to study abroad.
Typically, students go abroad in their junior year in various countries around the world —Western Europe, the United Kingdom and Australia being the most popular choices. Richard Gaulton, director of Cornell University’s Cornell Abroad program, thinks the impact of the weak dollar on the study abroad program is limited. He said that there has not been decreased interest in international travel, nor has he noticed a shift away from European countries for studying abroad.
“I don’t think the weak dollar is having an impact on destination so much, but it has certainly made students more conscious of the cost of studying abroad and may lead some of them to think twice about it,” Gaulton said.
[img_assist|nid=27114|title=Around the World|desc=Jessica Dwinell ’08 and Julie Park ‘09 chat about study abroad at the C.U. Study Abroad Meeting.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]Ryan Spagnolo ’09, who studied abroad in Strasbourg, France last semester, said that his decision was not affected by the weak dollar.
“While I was there, financial cost became more of a concern, but I think that if people want to go to the country they want to go to, they will find a way,” Spagnolo said.
Studying abroad has become expensive but Gaulton said that the weak dollar is not necessarily the only cause of this. One piece, he said, is the lifestyle that students adopt when they are abroad, as well as the fact that students who study abroad generally do so in large cities that have significantly increased costs.
“It’s understandable that when students go abroad, they are tempted to do things that tourists do or do things that are not available to them here in Ithaca, and I think that’s where the unexpected financial hardships come in,” Gaulton said.
Elana Jacob ’08, who went to Europe last semester, agreed that it was her out-of-the-ordinary expenses that impacted her the most.
“It was funny because the rate of the euro to the dollar went up while I was there,” she said. “We would buy things and wouldn’t think about it and then see the credit card bills and realize the actual conversion rate. But at the same time it was a once-in- a-lifetime experience.”
Of the approximately 1,200 students who study abroad annually, 500 do so through Cornell Abroad, which does what it can to help lessen the burden of expenses from international study. Currency is bought ahead of time and rates are locked and can be quoted to students. However, part of the difficulty is that students are not prepared, nor do they plan ahead of time, according to Gaulton. “They want to take advantage of opportunities, but they have to budget for those out of their own expenses and it can be hard,” Gaulton added.
Brett Rubin ’08, who went to Barcelona, Spain, felt the effects of the weak dollar, but began to internalize the currency differences when she got acclimated to the country.
“I was there a year ago. It wasn’t that big of a difference [since] I just started to multiply things in my head,” she said. “After four months I got used to it, and it never stopped me from doing things that I wanted to do.”
Statistically, there has not been a significant decline in the number of students who study abroad, but Cornell Abroad has been trying make sure students are well informed of the financial aspects of international study. The program also makes sure that students start planning in advance when they choose to study abroad.
“Before, it was parents who were aware of costs and students did not pay much attention to it; I think it is a healthy sign that now students are more aware of costs and that it’s going to take planning,” Gaulton said.
Cornell does have a financial aid policy for study abroad and if the dollar continues to drop, there will most likely be more of a dependence on financial aid and scholarships.
Aid is based on the actual cost of study abroad, so students who receive financial aid and plan to study abroad where it costs more than to study at Cornell would expect their aid package to increase.
This will put “a burden on the University because obviously we have a higher financial aid responsibility to cover for students who go abroad,” Gaulton said. “If the dollar were to lose more of its value, it [would be] a real crunch.”
Cornell Abroad is also making sure to remind students to take care of their housing situation as they plan their study abroad programs.
Not being able to find someone to sublet has also become more of a concern for students studying abroad, but Cornell Housing has im­proved its website and now provides a list of available off-campus housing that is updated twice a week.
“In my case, I planned it out with friends,” Spagnolo said. “When I was abroad, they leased my apartment and I did the same when they were abroad.”
“If you advertise well enough, people who are interested will come,” Spagnolo added.