Excess spring applicants forced to change study away plans

By Emma WestRasmus

Acceptance letters were delivered Saturday to students hoping to study abroad during the 2012-2013 school year. Many students considered the letters a mere formality confirming their plans to study at foreign universities and in programs—housing for next year was set, courses were planned out, and students were breathing a sigh of relief that their plans were finally concrete and just a few months away. But for 25 students, an unexpected surprise was waiting for them when they opened their letters. Because of a disproportionately large number of proposals to study away in the spring semester, more than two dozen students hoping to study away in the spring were informed they had been approved to study abroad on one condition: that they go fall semester instead. Paul Nelson, Director of the International Center, said that out of the 319 proposals submitted at the March deadline, 190 students applied for the spring semester, with 127 applicants expressing a preference for the fall. Two students submitted proposals for full-year study away. According to Nelson, upper levels of the administration deemed these figures “unacceptable” because of the budgeting challenges such an imbalance causes the college. In an attempt to even out the 63-student difference between semesters, 26 students were bumped from their preferred spring semester to the fall. For Anne Huber ’14, the news that she had not been approved to study abroad in Seville, Spain, next spring came as a shock. “I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me,” Huber said. In order to complete her application to send to her specific study abroad program before its April 1 deadline, Huber had to jump into overdrive to prepare her next application and rearrange her housing for next year. “The last few days have been extremely stressful,” Huber said. “It wasn’t nearly enough time to put together a thoughtful app.” According to Nelson, the decisions about which 25 students out of the 190 spring applicants would be forced to switch semesters were based primarily on the validity of the reasons students provided for choosing the spring semester rather than the fall. In recent years, students have overwhelmingly preferred to study away during the spring. The trend of disproportionate spring requests prompted last year’s change to a single application deadline from the previous model, which had separate deadlines for each semester. Because spring is still the more popular semester for students looking to study away, the application requires that students seeking to study that semester to provide a reason for why they selected the spring. Nelson said the committee responsible for determining which students to bump to the fall semester evaluated the justifications students provided to that question, as well as which deadlines had already passed for applying to fall programs. Nelson said he could understand the bind students were put in by the unexpected switch. “Of course we expected distress,” Nelson said. Like Huber, Sydney Naimi ’14 was shocked when she received a letter informing her that she would only be able to study abroad in Juiz de Fora, Brazil, if she went in the fall, despite having applied for the spring. Naimi, a Hispanic Studies and Educational Studies double major, had cited fall courses that were mandatory for her major as her justification for her spring proposal. She was not expecting to be one of the students bumped to fall because she said she was under the impression that required courses would be a suitable justification for wanting to be on campus in the fall. “The application makes it seem like academics will come first,” Naimi said. Huber and Naimi are among the fortunate students that were able to appeal the decision successfully, and both will be able to study abroad next spring as planned. Because of the outcry from students who had been bumped to the fall semester, an appeal process was set up to give students a chance to contest the decision to move them to the fall semester. At press time the number of students that appealed their fall placement and were either granted or denied their appeal was not available. However, Nelson said he knew that at least seven of the 26 students had already sent their appeals to Provost Kathleen Murray, and thought the number of appeals could reach 15. “I don’t know how the provost is going to figure it out,” Nelson said. “I don’t envy her trying to sort these all out.” Both Huber and Naimi said they understand the pressure the International Center was under to balance the number of students between semesters, but wished they had been given clearer instructions about the importance of providing a strong rationale for the spring preference. “I didn’t know that you had to sell spring semester,” Naimi said. “They don’t stress the importance of justifying.” Nelson, Huber and Naimi all voiced concern for how to avoid another situation like this in the future. One way to avoid the time crunch between when the International Center sends their study abroad decision letters and when students have to apply to their external program or foreign university would be to move the single deadline ahead to a date either in the fall or at the beginning to the spring semester. This would also give students more time to adjust housing plans if they were required to switch semesters. “I really don’t want this to happen to another group of students,” Huber said. “Better timing would make all the difference.” Yet Nelson noted that the issue of forcing students to switch semesters is just one of many changes that may lie ahead for Macalester students studying abroad. “This is only a small part of the big issue facing us, which is study abroad costs,” Nelson said. According to professor John Cannon, study abroad costs increased 40 percent between the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 academic years. Cannon said the college wrote about five million dollars worth of checks to study abroad programs and foreign universities this year. Cannon said that this represents about a sixth of the allotment of funds the college is able to withdraw from the endowment each year, a figure which is causing increasing concern among administrators. The Resources and Planning Committee, an advisory committee to the President that deals with long-term financial planning and issues with the college’s budget, was involved in selecting which students should be bumped to the fall semester. RPC is also one of the driving forces behind investigating the high costs study abroad places upon the college, and is in the process of seeking solutions to containing study abroad costs. “The forty-percent increase last year was staggering,” said Astronomy professor and RPC member John Cannon. “If that is allowed to go unchecked, we don’t know what could happen to the budget.” Though the RPC, International Center and administration don’t have clear answers yet as to what can be done to develop sustainable policies around study abroad spending, there is widespread recognition that longer-term solutions are necessary. “Five million is a lot of money, and the college needs to spends its money as wisely as it can,” Nelson said. “This pressure won’t go away.” refresh –>