Students discover surprise study abroad expenses

Unanticipated costs can trip them up

Katie Buchholz/IowaWatch

Brooke Avila, Simpson College alumna and owner of BA Innovations in Simpson, estimates she spent at least $1,500 extra during her study abroad experience in London in 1999.
Katie Buchholz/IowaWatch Brooke Avila, Simpson College alumna and owner of BA Innovations in Simpson, estimates she spent at least $1,500 extra during her study abroad experience in London in 1999.

Steffi Lee had been told about all the expected costs she might encounter while studying abroad from Simpson College of Indianola. Then, something unexpected happened.

A $530 monthly stipend to help Lee, a 20-year-old sophomore, with costs while working as a teacher’s assistant at Krosno State College in Poland did not come.

Lee hadn’t been told she had to apply for a work permit before she could receive her stipend, which was to cover food and travel.

“We had to check into the work permit laws, which Simpson and Krosno hadn’t known they had changed...I didn’t get my stipend until a month living in Poland,” she said.

Lee’s story is an example of the kinds of additional costs that are not taken into account before college students go overseas as part of their studies.

The unanticipated costs can range from a couple hundred to a couple thousand dollars.

Part of it can be attributed to students not preparing well enough, but several students at small colleges across Iowa said colleges’ travel-abroad directors bear some of the blame too.

“Study-abroad directors need to know if (students) need to update their paperwork and regulation information before people get stuck in another country, and being promised one thing and told another thing before they get to that country,” Lee said.

Fortunately for Lee, Krosno eventually paid for her work permit application materials. She’s returning soon to the United States after three months in Poland and said the experience has been well worth it, despite the initial issue.


Average price tags for studying abroad are difficult to calculate because of the different types of programs available.

“The cost depends on what you are going to do, the travel, the accommodations and excursions that you do on the trip,” said Jay Wilkinson, director of study abroad at Simpson College.

Lee said her known cost included her $15,500 Simpson tuition, $1,930 room and board for the semester and her $1,000 airfare.

Lee paid for her study abroad trip with financial aid for this semester and paid for her plane ticket out of pocket.

The Des Moines Area Community College website lists several expenses for its study abroad trip to London:

l $450 American Institute of Foreign study deposit.

l $6,645 program cost.

l $1,000 for airfare.

l DMACC’s tuition for 12 credit hours, $1,569.

A few other fees are listed, too — a refundable damage deposit of $250, an estimated textbook cost of $250 and suggested extra spending money, at $1,500 to $3,000.

Maria Cochran, DMACC’s study abroad coordinator, said the college gives students tips on how to raise money, such as applying for scholarships, working part-time, doing work study, forming a raffle at family gatherings or asking family members for a contribution.

Students also can apply for a Benjamin A. Gilman scholarship, an international study scholarship available to U.S. citizens who are undergraduates with limited financial means.

Study abroad directors said they try to find ways to make overseas studies more economical.

“There’s no point having good programs if no one can afford them,” said Trevor Nelson, director of the Study Abroad Center at Iowa State University.

The bottom line, Nelson said, is making study abroad programs more affordable to the most needy students. “We don’t want to put the student in a situation with unexpected costs,” Nelson said.


The average Iowa student debt exceeds $29,000, according to the Project on Student Debt and Iowa College Student Aid Commission, and studying abroad can add to the financial burden. But the expense can pay off when looking for a job, officials said.

“If you spend a semester on the beach, it won’t help you, but if you spend a semester emerged in a culture, I think that gives you cross-cultural competence. It also helps you to be able to interact comfortably with different cultures,” said Catharine Cashner, director of international programs at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids.

“I probably maxed out a credit card or two while I was there,” she said.

Avila, now 35, owns a marketing business in Indianola. She said she probably spent at least $200 to $300 she didn’t plan on plays and musicals, took an additional $500 trip around Europe for a week and spent $200 to $300 shopping.

“These were the things that cost me more in that trip, but I wouldn’t have traded it,” Avila said.

l This report was a spring 2014 semester class project for the non-profit news organization IowaWatch by Cait Conner, Rachel Peterson, Erin Gerken and Katie Buchholz. The Iowa Center for Public Affairs is a non-profit, online news website that collaborates with Iowa news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative reporting.

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