Students balance disparity between home, abroad tuition
Penn's policy of having students pay Penn's tuition while abroad began in 1994
November 16, 2011, 10:25 pm · Updated November 18, 2011, 12:38 am·
When College senior Hannah Peterson arrived in Buenos Aires, Argentina, last fall for her study abroad experience, she was in for a bit of a shock.
Universidad de Buenos Aires, where she enrolled through the Institute for Study Abroad at Butler University, was on strike.
“I didn’t go to class the majority of time I was there,” Peterson recalled.
As a Penn student, though, she still had to pay the nearly $20,000 that would finance a semester at Penn.
For some of her peers at the school, tuition was next to nothing.
“It was pretty ridiculous that my classes were pretty much free for the other people there,” she said.
For Peterson, who chose the program in Argentina to learn Spanish and experience a new culture, “it was frustrating knowing that we were paying Penn tuition to learn Argentine culture, which I could’ve done without the program.”
Though many students have expressed sentiments similar to Peterson’s, Penn is not alone in charging home-school tuition to students who choose to study at a foreign university.
Students who go abroad “will be charged tuition and a study abroad fee by the University of Pennsylvania at a rate equivalent to tuition and the general fee on the Philadelphia campus for the corresponding time period,” according to the Penn Abroad website. The charges do not vary by program.
Penn — along with 29 percent of the approximately 600 schools surveyed by the Forum on Education Abroad — employs this method, while the most common policy, practiced by 35 percent of the schools, has students pay overseas programs directly based on their tuition requirements.
Brian Whalen, president of the Forum on Education Abroad, acknowledged that there is a “misconception” among students regarding the fairness of these disparate policies. He emphasized that there is a “standard for access” to abroad programs that every school attempts to maintain, regardless of payment method.
Past to present
At Penn, current home-school tuition policy is an attempt to maintain that standard of access.
Prior to 1994, when the policy was implemented, studying abroad was a much more elusive option for students, Director of Penn Abroad Barbara Gorka said.
In order to spend time at an overseas institution, students would have to take a leave of absence from Penn, directly apply to the foreign university of their choice and receive transfer credits for their classes taken overseas.
The External Credit Evaluation Tool did not exist. Otherwise known as XCAT, the website assists students in determining whether individual courses taken abroad transfer into credit at Penn and is now mandatory for students studying overseas. Financial aid was also not available to students who went abroad.
Essentially, the pre-1994 method of financing study abroad implied that “study abroad was off-limits, or you would have to pick a program based on cost,” Gorka said.
Charging home-school tuition, she added, allows students to choose a program independent of economic concerns and continue to receive financial aid while overseas.
Furthermore, “when students study abroad, they are still Penn students,” Gorka said. Students still have access to their home-school advising system and resources such as Student Health Services and Counseling and Psychological Services — all of which are funded by Penn tuition dollars.
A different approach
However, some peer schools take a different approach.
Cornell University, which Gorka described as “similar to Penn in promoting direct enrollment programs and international engagement,” has students pay the tuition of the abroad institution in addition to the Cornell International Program Tuition, which is around $4,000 per semester.
“The cost to students varies considerably,” Cornell Abroad Director Richard Gaulton said.
While students are more dependent on factors such as international exchange rates, Cornell financial aid can transfer to all programs.
“Our policy maximizes student choice,” Gaulton said. He explained that as opposed schools like Penn, which provides a list of pre-approved programs, Cornell allows students to find and apply to programs on their own.
Sometimes these choices are based on economic concerns. “We might have students who studied in an inexpensive place because they wanted to save money,” Gaulton said.
Though he conceded that methods such as Penn’s “take the economic factor out of the choice and allow students to make decisions based on what program is best,” for many students, the opportunity to study abroad for a semester on relatively lower tuition holds great appeal.
Peterson, who found it “very aggravating that we were pretty much the only school in the [Argentine] program that had to keep paying Penn tuition,” would have appreciated access to the full public university experience — including practically free tuition.
Factoring in finances
In general, though, each university’s method of financing study abroad is not something that students question.
Like Penn, Columbia University charges home-school tuition for students studying abroad.
Columbia senior Matt Getz, who works in the university’s Office of Global Programs, has noticed that “we get student questions about it, but mostly students take [the policy] as a given and they don’t really push back against it.”
However, Getz emphasized that the main motivating factor behind charging Columbia tuition to students is to allow the continuation of financial aid. Getz received financial aid in the form of grants, with which he was able to pay both Columbia tuition fees as well as expenses during his semester abroad in Argentina.
Even College junior George Pinel, who will be studying at Sophia University, a private school in Japan, didn’t take tuition policy into account when making his choice. According to Whalen, Japan is one of the more expensive countries for students because of the exchange rate.
Though Pinel acknowledged that Penn’s home-school tuition policy “in a sense does help me” because the cost of study in Japan would be greater than a semester at Penn, he didn’t factor economics into his decision. He knew he would “more or less go to Japan or not go at all.”
Pinel’s experience testifies to the fact that students don’t necessarily resist the policy of home-school tuition because “it frees up students to go where they want,” Getz said.
Fulfilling a broader mission
With Penn’s emphasis on global engagement, ensuring students access to education abroad is a top priority.
Schools like Penn “should have solid justifications for charging the fees they do,” Whalen said, and in Penn’s case, that justification is quality control.
Penn maintains an active engagement both with overseas programs and its home abroad office, Gorka said. From ensuring that the schools students attend provide an experience equal to Penn’s to providing pre- and post-abroad programming for Penn students, tuition dollars contribute to a fulfilling experience, she added.
Gorka admitted that she could see how Penn’s tuition policy could appear unfair, but it must be “put in the context of the University’s mission. You can’t do global engagement on a shoestring.”
As Peterson concluded, “it’s priceless to be able to speak another language and learn another culture.”