Full year study abroad restrictions tightened

By Amber Bunnell

Macalester’s committment to a global experience for its students is not immune from fiscal concerns. Policies limiting Macalester students to study abroad for a full year, as well as continued debate about whether international students may use their financial aid to study abroad, demonstrate that fact. Mac students planning a semester off campus – or hoping for two – now have to consider both new and old restrictions. While last year’s move to a single, annual deadline for study away proposals has helped to balance the number of students studying abroad each semester and thus eased budget restraints, financial concerns are still affecting Macalester policies. Off-campus study is a significant and growing part of a Macalester education for many students. A record 346 students will be studying abroad during the 2011-2012 academic year, and signs for next year point to continued growth. This October, 448 students turned in intent forms for off-campus study – 55 more than last year. Although students abroad pay a typical semester of Macalester tuition, off-campus study is very expensive for the school – this year, it will cost the college $5 million to pay overseas agencies and off-campus service providers. Because many Mac students receive financial aid in the form of tuition discounts, when that financial aid is applied to a semester abroad Macalester ends up writing out-of-pocket checks to off-campus service providers. Students’ financial aid, in other words, travels with them abroad. If students did not study abroad, that $5 million would stay at home. Additionally, those who pay full tuition end up paying their off-campus providers directly, meaning Macalester receives less money. One of the biggest issues regarding the financial restrictions on study away is whether students can do a year-long study. Macalester has long preferred students to study away only once for one semester. According to the International Center’s handbook for study away, “one student pursuing study abroad for the entire academic year replaces the opportunity two students may have for a single semester.” The school will consider granting permission for full-year study away only in exceptional cases where three requirements are met: full year study must be essential to the student’s academic goals, coursework must be done at a university well known for its excellence in the student’s field of study, and the student must be academically, culturally, and linguistically prepared. This year only three students are participating in full-year study, and two of them are doing their second semester under a leave of absence. This year has brought a “tightening” in policy, said Paul Nelson, Director of the International Center. “For year-long proposals to succeed, they must present a truly extraordinary educational opportunity,” Nelson said. “The tightening is a response to the financial downturn and the surge in demand for study abroad.” This surge-triggered policy tightening is clearly illustrated in the newly revised Macalester study away handbook. This year the Study Away Review Committee added new language explicitly stating that no proposal for two semesters in two places will be considered, and that the deeper cultural and linguistic immersion that a full year would provide is not considered an adequate argument for full-year study. Instead, Macalester suggests, “a student’s desire for immersion…may be met by participating in a summer or J-term program before or after a semester of study abroad.” However, this leads to another limitation on Mac off-campus study: though two-thirds of the student body relies on some form of financial aid, no funds are available for summer or winter study. Financial aid for off-campus study is also restricted for international students. Macalester international students are currently not allowed to apply their financial aid towards study-away unless their major requires it, or they are accepted into the Macalester-Maastricht Perspectives on Globalization Program. The exception to this rule is the case of international students who are International Studies majors – although the department has argued to the contrary, the Macalester administration considers international students to have fulfilled their I.S. study abroad requirement after their first semester at Macalester. The reasoning for this policy is multilayered. According to Nelson, not only are all international students already studying abroad right here in St. Paul, but 20 percent do study abroad with financial aid either because their major requires it or they participate in the Maastricht Program. “One of the reasons to bring international students to campus is to have them here, for what they bring to campus life, not send them away,” Nelson said. Financial limitations also play a role. According to Nelson, an additional twenty international students studying abroad would cost the college an extra $300,000. The debate appeared on an MCSG resolution last year entitled “Equity in Study Abroad.” The resolution argued that “a study experience away from one’s home campus encompasses a unique and important aspect of one’s educational experience” and that the “administration should change the current policy so all international students are eligible to apply their financial aid to study away experiences.” Although 63 percent of the Macalester student body was in favor of the resolution, it was tabled for later discussion. “The difficulty lies in the fact that Macalester (responsibly) budgets years in advance,” Kate Hamilton, chair of MCSG’s Academic Affairs Committee, wrote in an email. “So the money needed to supplement the cost difference for international students studying away simply has already been budgeted elsewhere for the present academic year.” While MCSG representatives are meeting with the Provost this November to follow-up on the Equity in Study Abroad resolution, in Nelson’s opinion, this policy probably won’t be changing anytime soon thanks to the cloudy economy. “That said,” he said, “lots of people in the college disagree with the policy, so as an issue it will probably not go away.”