College Costs: Studying Abroad

When Lauren Harrison dreamed of studying abroad in Paris this fall, she imagined flying somewhere cool every weekend and tucking into crepes for lunch every day. But when she arrived, with the dollar reaching all-time lows against the euro, she began doing the math. Café au lait? Four euros—or $5.65. Cheese and mushroom crepe? More than six euros—or $9. Round-trip airfare to Berlin on a low-cost airline? Seventy euros—around $100. "The prices sound great, but then you convert," says Harrison, who studies African and international studies at Yale. "Going out, restaurants, shopping, food. Everything costs more. Basically, add 50 percent."

Like many tourists, American students living abroad these days are feeling pinched as exchange rates move in the wrong direction. A year ago, a U.S. dollar was worth 1.25 euros; this week, the dollar-to-euro ratio stands at 1.41. While the weak dollar is hurting tourism, it can be especially punishing to study-abroad students, who generally have tighter budgets than vacationers and who must make their money last for months, instead of weeks.

Many students are discovering new ways to stretch their dollars in smart ways. Some are arriving in their host country early and working at a summer job—both to get acclimated, and to earn money in the local currency, says Lee Svete, career-services chief at the University of Notre Dame. And as many cut back on what used to be the defining experiences of studying abroad (indulging in regional cuisine, hanging out in neighborhood bars and clubs, taking side trips) they're living more like locals—and picking up useful money-management skills, besides.

In Harrison's case, that means discovering some of the simpler pleasures of Paris, like living with a roommate in a relatively affordable neighborhood among Asian immigrants. She cooks at home, packs lunches, goes to free museums and says she'll wait for the biannual sales to hit the boutiques. And, sounding like a true Gaul, she says, "baguettes and wine are actually a great deal, honestly. It's so cliché." (Price tag: less than three euros, or $4.25.)

Adrienne Hamm, a junior from Wofford College in South Carolina studying in Ferrara, Italy, was a camp counselor this summer, and her parents add money to her account regularly. Still, she canceled a weekend in Vienna because at 300 euros ($425), it was way over her budget. She hasn't added any Italian shoes to her wardrobe yet, and in a region known for its world-class cuisine, she's gotten used to cooking in. "My roommate and I take note of dishes we like when we eat at restaurants and then we try to do our own (usually much simpler) version of the dish in our kitchen. We have a stove and a microwave but no oven, so we have to be creative at times," she writes in an e-mail.

To stay on track, Hamm checks her bank account online every day, uses toiletries she brought with her—a friend had warned they'd be expensive—and scopes out local bargains, like train tickets or cheap gelato, with a vengeance. "You have to do a lot of searching to find the best deals," she says.

Before coming to France, Harrison had braced herself that life would be more expensive, but she was shocked at how the little things added up after factoring in the conversion and commission. Toilet paper. Bottled water. So she started keeping a detailed spreadsheet—"not because I want to, but because if I don't keep track I will literally run out of money." Even being cautious, she's spent $4,200 in the first six weeks. A friend, she confides, recently checked her balance to find she had $5 left—and freaked out. The girl's parents are making a deposit, but it was a wake-up call for both of them.

Some students find their parents actually encouraging them to indulge, to make the most of the experience—even if it means making sacrifices of their own. Joanne Prinzhorn, whose daughter, Jillian Smith, spent a semester in Vienna and one in Regensburg, Germany, didn't want to her daughter to cut back needlessly, even though the study-abroad program put "a little pressure" on her budget. "We felt that doing a study abroad was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so money wasn't so much of an issue," she says. The fact that tuition cost the same abroad as at Vanderbilt University, where her daughter is a student, made it easier to say yes twice.

But the schools themselves are also feeling the crunch. At Stanford, students on university programs pay the same tuition and fees as if they were on campus and Stanford then pays expenses abroad, including tuition, housing and food. "We look at them as students here on campus," says John Mallet, finance manager with the study-abroad office. Typically, U.S. schools have done well under this system, because tuition at the foreign institution is often far less than at the students' home campus. But the falling dollar means higher costs for U.S. schools that charge students directly. "The currency is affecting things," Mallet says. "But we want students to go abroad, and we're doing everything to make sure that that happens," he says.

Not every college can afford to do that. Kimberly Mick, study-abroad and exchange coordinator for Hiram College in Ohio, says the school sets prices two years ahead for its extremely popular three-week, faculty-led trips. With higher costs due to the euro and more expensive jet fuel, the school asked parents to pay an adjustment on some trips. Other itineraries have cut back on food and housing costs, with students taking the subway instead of a private bus, for example. But with students already sleeping in hostels or campsites, how much more basic can it get? As a result, numbers are hurting: 50 percent of Hiram students studied abroad six years ago, and now about 30 percent go, Mick says.

As the euro rises, dollar-friendly destinations like Mexico and China are becoming more popular options, and not just for economic reasons, says Peggy Blumenthal, executive vice president of the Institute of International Education, which administers scholarships and programs including the Fulbright. While competition for funding grows more fierce every year, there are many educational resources for students and parents, including a new Web site, Who knows? After all the preliminary research, and then months of tracking the currency markets, some students might be tempted to switch their majors to international finance when they come home.