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Credit: Gisell Gomez

This year, Penn Abroad Director Nigel Cossar anticipates almost 500 Penn undergraduate students will study abroad for a semester. The interest in studying abroad has become more common among students, but many find that financing a semester away from Penn can be more complicated than expected.

All students at Penn — whether studying on Penn's campus in Philadelphia or at a university abroad — pay the same flat fee of $23,708 each semester for tuition. For students studying abroad, however, there are often additional expenses that vary on location.

Some students must pay for a student visa, which can cost hundreds of dollars depending on the country, but other students, like those studying at King's College London, do not have to pay any fee for a student visa. Other variable fees include local transportation, books and supplies, housing and round-trip flights. Some countries also have mandatory health insurance attached to their semester abroad.

All these fees are typically categorized by the Study Abroad office as non-billable, additional costs, meaning, costs that are beyond the standard cost of tuition. Students on financial aid at Penn are likely able to receive aid for these costs — and maybe even receive a refund of their aid if these ancillary costs are cheaper in their destination campus than at Penn —  but those not on aid will have to bear these variable costs on their own. 

Of the top 10 fall study abroad locations, Comillas Pontifical University in Madrid, Spain had the highest non-billable, additional cost of $11,710. Hong Kong University of Science and Technology had the lowest non-billable, additional cost of $6,058.

Cossar said he has never encountered a student who approached the Penn Abroad office and found that these additional costs served as a barrier to their prospective abroad plans.

"A large part of that is connected to the fact that Penn does take the semester abroad experience very seriously,” Cossar said. “Unlike many other schools in the [United States], we give Penn credits, not transfer credits, and we give grades towards cumulative GPA.”

Credit: Julia Schorr

In practice, Penn treats its study abroad students no differently from Penn students on campus. Students studying abroad still have access to services such as Counseling and Psychological Services or the Student Health Service, pay tuition to Penn and continue to receive the financial aid packages that they previously received.

Elaine Papas Varas, the University director of financial aid, said Penn works hard to make sure they cover the additional costs listed on the budget sheet for students on financial aid. She added that she has never witnessed a financial aid student unable to study abroad for a semester due to these additional costs.

However, students who have studied abroad on financial aid said the budget sheet provided on the Penn Abroad website can sometimes fail to take into account the ancillary costs that come with living abroad such as maintaining a housing lease in Philadelphia or arranging storage for the semester that they are away. 

College senior Sabrina Zatarain, who studied in Spain last semester, said the budget sheet does not account for the costs associated with traveling to other countries, which is common for students studying abroad. 

Varas also said that students who do not qualify for financial aid, but cannot afford the additional costs of study abroad, do not suddenly become eligible to receive aid. 

Students who were already recipients of financial aid or scholarships receive “refund checks” if the costs of their study abroad were less than the money they would have paid to attend Penn.

“I'm a financial aid kid so studying abroad at the Universidad de Sevilla was actually cheaper than a semester at Penn,” said Zatarain, who recalled being refunded money. 

College senior DaLia Hughes, who studied in Spain last semester, also said she had extra money in her scholarship due to cheaper housing and food. Penn sent Hughes the money in a check while she was abroad.

“Penn wants to make sure that our programs are right academically for our students,” Cossar said. “Cost is a secondary thing.”