Pricey foreign study

Pricey foreign study

No tuition break for semester abroad, even in countries where college is free

James Romanelli, a senior at Boston College, paid full BC tuition last year, plus the cost of housing, to spend a semester at the Copenhagen Business School. So he was surprised when he arrived to learn that his Danish classmates paid nothing at all.

Romanelli’s tuition payments to BC while he studies abroad are footing the bill for international students to come to BC for free.

“I understand BC wants to promote a more diverse student body, and I’m okay with that,” says Romanelli, a finance major from South Huntington, New York. “But it should not be at the expense of their own students.”

The situation has created understandable confusion – and some resentment – among US students who were unaware of the tuition dynamic. But there is a broader context in which the semester-abroad payment scheme makes perfect sense: Students have a chance to switch places with counterparts from other countries, but the students continue the college payment practices of their home countries, where they and their families live and pay taxes. And students in many foreign countries don’t pay college tuition because the cost is socialized through higher tax assessments on all residents.

BC is hardly alone in in its tuition policy for study abroad. Georgetown, New York University, and the universities of Massachusetts at Amherst, Pennsylvania, Texas, and North Carolina at Chapel Hill, among many others, all charge American students full tuition while they study abroad, officials at each of those institutions confirm.

Studying abroad is no longer just a perk enjoyed by humanities majors at top private universities. In an era of globalization, the experience is viewed as significantly more important for all students. The number of US students studying abroad hit an all-time high last year at more than 283,000, the Institute of International Education reports.

The tuition charges for Americans studying in countries whose own residents pay nothing out of their own pockets for college come against the backdrop of skyrocketing tuition in the United States, where the cost of higher education has increased more than ten-fold since 1978, or four times faster than inflation. Boston College this year costs up to $60,494 for resident students, depending on their dorm and dining plan.

The rising cost of college has helped drive up student debt in the United States by an average of 6 percent per year since 2008. Seventy percent of US college graduates last year finished school with debt, which averaged $29,400 per borrower, according to the Project on Student Debt.

Private US universities are by far the most expensive higher education institutions among the 34 member countries of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, the OECD reports. US public universities are the third most costly, outpaced only by those in Ireland and Chile.

Thirteen OECD countries, including Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, South Korea, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland, charge their residents nothing out of their own pockets to go to college. Most foreign nationals, such as exchange students from the US, however, don’t qualify for free tuition when studying in these countries.

“Exchange programs are generally set up on the basis where the tuition and fees paid by the outgoing students support the incoming students,” says Kalpen Trivedi, director of international programs at UMass Amherst. “So in the case of the UMass student who pays UMass tuition and fees and then goes to the University of Uppsala [in Sweden], those tuition and fees are used to support the Uppsala student on the UMass campus.”

That’s something Therese Tully didn’t know when she went last spring to Uppsala from BC, which charged her full BC tuition even though Swedish nationals not only pay nothing to attend universities in their country, but get a subsidy for personal expenses.

“I don’t think that is particularly fair,” says Tully, an English major from New Jersey. “I was receiving no services from BC and therefore don’t know what I was paying for, exactly.”

What such complaints don’t consider is the fact that the families of students in Sweden, for example, pay very high taxes to underwrite a much more generous system of socialized services, which includes universal, free higher education, generous parental leave plans, and guaranteed retirement pensions. Many students from countries with free higher education would likely balk at the opportunity to study in the US if they suddenly had to pay the huge charges Americans incur for college here.

Meanwhile, US students are accustomed to a system that, for better or worse, relies on families to piece together the costs of college from savings, loans, and financial aid awarded by schools and by the federal government.

Romanelli, the BC finance major, says his parents asked BC administrators why he was paying so much to go to a university in Denmark that charged no tuition. He says they were told that no one had ever asked before. “I loved my experience abroad and wouldn’t trade it for the world,” he says. “This, however, is nickel-and-diming taken way too far.”

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But the exchange system benefits everyone, says Ashley Jun, BC’s associate director of finance. American students have an opportunity to experience a different country and culture, she says, while international students who come to BC and other schools for free through the exchange system “provide a unique perspective in the classroom.”

Joshua Dutton, Ariana Igneri, and Cole Rabinowitz are students at Boston College. They wrote this article as part of an advanced journalism class taught by veteran Boston journalist Jon Marcus.