Weak dollar, economy hurt overseas study

Katie Parker (right) advises Sophia Prantera, 18, on study abroad programs Wednesday at Michigan State University's Office of Study Abroad Resource Center in East Lansing, Mich. The weak dollar, sluggish economy and harder-to-get student loans are making

Al Goldis

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Amanda Smay, an English major at a Pennsylvania college, longed to go to London next month with a study abroad program.

Then the sticker shock set in. The 10-day trip would cost about $2,800, or 75 percent more than two years ago. The Penn State-Altoona sophomore is sitting this one out, along with a few of her classmates, after the program was canceled because not enough students signed up.

"Most of the people I talked to couldn't afford it," Smay said. "I couldn't afford it. I'm just putting money aside now and hopefully I'll go my senior year."

The weak dollar, a sluggish economy and a tougher time getting some types of student loans is making it harder for some U.S. college students to study or travel abroad this summer.

Study abroad programs have set records in recent years, with more than 223,000 U.S. students participating during the 2005-06 academic year, according to the latest annual survey by the New York-based Institute of International Education. Most universities expect overall participation to keep rising, but that growth could be limited within some programs by the struggling dollar and other economic factors.

Universities with large study abroad programs are making changes to keep specific destinations within budget. Some smaller programs, however, are struggling to find enough students to make the trips feasible even after adjusting to cut costs.

Some recent trends are becoming more pronounced at many universities. More students appear to be opting for shorter programs of eight weeks or less, at least partly for financial reasons. More students are picking less expensive destinations such as Mexico, Costa Rica and China instead of western Europe, where the euro reigns.

"Part of that interest in other destinations is for career-related reasons," said Peggy Blumenthal, executive vice president of the Institute of International Education. "But also, these places are less expensive to live."

The dollar is particularly weak when compared with the euro, the main currency in 15 European nations including the popular study abroad destinations of Italy, Spain and France. The euro reached a record of more than $1.60 last week before easing back to about $1.55 this week. Last year at this time, it traded at about $1.36.

Colleen Whately, a Central Michigan University student, wanted to study abroad this school year in Italy. Then she discovered that a four-month program in the Czech Republic would cost her about half as much. Prague was in, Rome was out — and Whately figures she saved about $6,000 on the four-month program that ended in December.

Her advice: Budget and scout locations carefully to get the most bang for the weakened buck.

"It doesn't make that much difference what country it is," Whately said. "If you have to change your plans around a little, it's still a valuable experience."

Sarah Little, a Michigan State University senior and international relations major, leaves for her third overseas study program next week in France. Little estimates the entire three-month trip will cost more than $10,000, including about $3,900 in costs related to the study abroad program.

She'll be staying with a Parisian couple who will give her access to the kitchen because she can save money cooking her own food. Little scouted weekend excursions in advance, discovering that sometimes budget airlines offer round-trip airfares that are cheaper than traveling by train. She's also a big fan of the international student identification card, which offers discounts to some museums.

"I will be very careful with my spending money this summer," said Little, who helps other students research study abroad programs and financing options at a campus resource center. "The program fee really didn't increase all that much. It's the traveling, buying food — that sort of thing. It adds up to be quite a bit."

"It's not all money and it's not all the euro," said Kathleen Fairfax, MSU's study abroad director. "But that's part of it."

The struggling domestic U.S. economy is another factor. Students face higher bills for tuition, food and gasoline. And the credit crunch that first hit the nation's housing market has filtered down to some types of loan programs that students might use to help finance an overseas study program.