Financial constraints limit study abroad

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Every year, study abroad coordinator Katherine Yngve buys two filing cabinets before the last-minute deadline rush begins. The cabinets, which each hold 100 applications, make easier for Yngve and her student-employees the frantic Friday when study abroad proposals are due. This year, at 3 p.m. on the due date, Oct. 7, both cabinets were full.

“That’s when we knew it was going to be a problem,” Yngve said. “We’ve never had anything like this demand as opposed to the cap.”

When all the applications were counted, exactly 200 had been completed. According to an e-mail sent to all spring applicants, the cap for spring semester is 139, meaning that 30.5 percent of applicants will not be approved.

As of press time on Wednesday, treasurer David Wheaton told The Mac Weekly that funds have been allocated to allow an unspecified number of additional students to be approved.

An unusually big junior class of 482, the second largest in 10 years, accounts for some of the problem. The previous high in students who enrolled in study abroad programs was 220 in the 2001-02 school year. The ten-year high for the spring semester was 152 in 2003, when the college exceeded the cap to a lesser extent than this year.

The cap is set annually but is never addressed in the fall because of lower application numbers.

“The cap is nothing new, but this year we had substantially more than we expected,” Wheaton said. “Energy prices went through the roof, and there are empty beds in the residence halls, leaving us with not as much maneuvering room as we would like.”

In order to accommodate this year’s large junior class, Macalester budgeted for 220 students to study away, up 16 percent from 200 students last year, Treasurer David Wheaton said.

“People need to understand that it’s not the case that fewer people are going away,” Wheaton said. “We made it bigger, and more people expressed interest than we expected.”

The announcement comes eight months after the college’s decision to require students to pay full Macalester tuition for all study abroad programs of equal or lesser value.

The approval process now moves to the Study Abroad Review Committee (SARC) and a set of criteria to evaluate the applications. Depending on the number of applications, SARC sets a minimum cumulative GPA between 3.00 and 3.50.

Among those qualified by GPA, the committee favors seniors required by their major to study abroad, seniors not required to study abroad, and juniors required to study abroad. After the first three categories, preference goes to sophomores in Macalester’s own programs and then juniors who are not required to study abroad.

In response to the announcement, some students circulated a petition to submit to the administration. David Boehnke ’07, one of the organizers, said the group had 350 signatures after two days.

“This is really a question of how they budget and how important study abroad is to the college in relation to everything else,” Boehnke said.

Wheaton stressed that the cap does not signify a wavering commitment to internationalism.

“The college devotes funds toward providing an international experience in three or four significant ways, and study away is one of them,” he said. “We use a great deal of resources bringing the world to our student body, and that is available day in and day out.”

Wheaton said the International Center, the International Studies department and the International Roundtable also communicate Macalester’s commitment.

“Internationalism is more than just study away,” Provost Dianne Michelfelder said. “It involves creating a campus community with a strong presence of international students, as well has having a curriculum that has a robust modern language component and many focal points on international issues.”

Other students raised questions about a lack of transparency in the process.

Megan Metzger ’07 said that if students understood the risk of surpassing the cap from the beginning, then less enthusiastic or less qualified students may have waited until next fall to apply.

“The administration wasn’t very open and that’s the main problem,” Metzger said. “If there are significant economic and financial reasons why the money isn’t there, they do need to be more honest about those reasons. The administration gets demonized a lot, but students need to try harder to understand and ask more questions, and the administration needs to make things really clear.”

Yngve said transparency was the reason for the explanation e-mail sent out to applicants. Because students would be anxious, she said, the college wanted to inform them of the process and competitiveness.

Grace Arnold `07, who was approved to study away for a full year but has decided to just spend the spring semester abroad, said she was under the impression that the switch to Macalester tuition instead of program fees would “theoretically eliminate the caps.”

Arnold said some juniors, in light of the announcement, are considering other options for the spring.

“A lot of people I know have said if they don’t get in, then they’re taking the semester off,” she said.

This year’s sophomore class has 482 students, potentially presenting the same problem next year. Wheaton said that although the focus is on alleviating the financial constraint for study abroad next semester, discussions are in the works for long-term solutions.

“There are short term and long term questions about where this is heading and how we can fund it over time,” he said.