Students turn to Financial Aid to finance J-term trips

By Kevin Xiong

Every January, some Macalester students keep themselves busy with a department-sponsored study away. These J-term trips, while shorter than other study away programs, require major financial investment. “[Students] do need to make a decision to borrow a significant amount of money,” Brian Lindeman, Director of Financial Aid, said. This year, about a half dozen people have come to the Financial Aid office seeking help financing trips. There would be more, Lindeman said, but the existing automatic grant program keeps numbers down. Students qualifying for need-based aid, including international students, have a $500 grant available for January abroad travel. If that is not enough, Financial Aid can make additional loans available to students as well, but this is highly variable from student to student. If students haven’t maxed out federal loans, they can increase their financial aid package for tuition, essentially taking more loans. If they have maxed out federal loans, their other option would be private loans from banks, but these have a less forgiving pay schedule than Perkins Loans. International students can have trouble getting federal loans because their cosigner does not usually have U.S. citizenship. “For most students,” Lindeman said. “There is a way for them to pay.” Jamie Lucarelli ’13 visited the office to figure out if she could attend the now canceled Australia trip sponsored by the Psychology department. “Once I spoke to them it was clear right away that I could pay for the [Australia] trip and I knew what steps to take,” Lucarelli said. Financial Aid expects students to look at their own options too; asking for money from relatives where appropriate and looking at personal savings is not out of the question. Part of this means hosting fundraisers such as bake sales and yard sales. In the past Bonner students have fundraised for their January New Orleans trips in similar ways and the school recommends that other students do this as well. Planning finances Economically, though, Lindeman says Financial Aid has to recognize that for many students, adding a January study abroad trip is really challenging. “From a financing perspective we do think of it differently than a semester away program,” he said. While the IGC makes semester away programs feasible for most domestic students, J-term and summer study abroad trips are seen more as enrichment programs. Loans and high expenses might scare off potential students. Raymond Robertson, an Economics professor co-leading a J-term trip to Cambodia with Erik Davis this year, understands. “Everyone’s always concerned about money,” Robertson said. “And it does keep some students away.” The Cambodia trip will cost around $4,000 per student and the payment was spread out over the last year to alleviate financial impact. The trip itself will last 21 days, not including travel. Airfare is usually the culprit of the high expenses, making up nearly half the cost of the Cambodia trip, at about $1,200-1,500. In order to save money, the Economics and Religious Studies departments didn’t go through a touring agency. Instead they looked up the cost of each part of the trip—airfare, hotels, research opportunities—and added it all up themselves. “There’s zero profit, and the faculty are not being paid,” Robertson said. “So it seems very expensive, but in a way, it’s kind of a good deal.” Alone, a student would not receive the instructional value and approved Macalester credits. Twelve students, the maximum for the trip, have already committed. “I’m extremely excited about going [to Cambodia] with this group of students,” said Robertson. “It’s a great country, and it’s going to be a blast.” Psychology professor Eric Wiertelak was also planning the 16th quadrennial two-week J-term trip to Australia, which would have cost about $6,495 per student. This is the first cancelation due to insufficient student interest. The minimum required enrollment was 10 students. Last year there were 33 students for a trip that cost only $500 less. “[J-term trips] are always going to have a sticker shock to them,” said Wiertelak. The LA-Sydney flight bore an $800 tax and there were six flights in Australia just to get where they needed to be. Altogether, the flights would’ve made up half the cost. It doesn’t help that the departments themselves can’t pitch in, he said since they have “no budget for it.” Wiertelak does try to keep costs in mind when planning these things. He spends about a year negotiating the price down, and the actual experience—animal study, tour operators, working with naturalists—was driven down to $3,300. In contrast to Robertson and Davis, Wiertelak worked with a travel partner and accumulated group discounts. But travel agencies still look for profits, so it can be hard for departments to decide the best way to travel abroad. No matter what way the money is used, though, getting students out of the classroom and into the world can only deepen the college experience. “Students should look at January study away trips as a viable substitute for a study abroad,” Wiertelak said, noting that there is still time for students to take one this upcoming January. Cost aside, he added that J-term trips can fit into 4-year academic plans better than semesters abroad. “I’m sad J-term trips are absurdly expensive,” Lucarelli said. “But Macalester gives me the impression that it’s committed to helping students overcome financial obstacles if they put in the effort and are determined to do something.” refresh –>