Study abroad sees enrollment changes

By Amy Lieberman

Macalester decided during winter break to implement a new cap on the number of students who study abroad, drawing the line at 115 students per semester. The decision leaves sophomores just six weeks until the Fall ’06 study abroad application deadline of March 10. Sophomores may wish to reshuffle plans to avoid possible increased competition for study abroad in Spring ’07.

This policy change follows last semester’s overload of study abroad applications and is an effort to ensure that the college will not exceed its allotted budget for study abroad programs in coming years.

Apart from this decision, the Resource Planning Commission (RPC), a committee of faculty, staff and students, is also looking at the long-term future of Macalester’s study abroad program. The RPC is now in the preliminary stages of drafting a report recommending possible solutions that could alleviate the financial crunch caused by ever-increasing study abroad costs.

Administration officials cited Macalester students’ history of studying abroad during spring semester as a drawback both to the college finances and general community. While 74 students studied abroad in Fall ’05, 176, a record high, are studying abroad this spring–an imbalance that has resulted in additional vacant housing, which if filled, could have saved the college up to $200,000.

From a purely financial stand-point, there are empty beds and less revenue,” said Treasurer David Wheaton, who collaborated with President Brian Rosenberg and Provost Diane Michelfelder to make the decision. “But the question is, even if we had the funds and the entire class was able to study abroad, would we want that?”

According to Wheaton, the college had originally budgeted for 220 students to study abroad this academic year, not the final 250. The extra 30 students cost the college approximately $500,000, he said. And despite allowing the extra students, the college rejected 18 students’ applications, Study Abroad Coordinator Katherine Ygnve told The Mac Weekly this fall.

While the administration and International Center prefer not to view study abroad purely in financial terms, the extensive costs remain an issue. When students study abroad, they pay Macalester tuition for a semester; the college then writes a check to students’ study abroad programs, even if a program costs more than a student paid in tuition. Students’ financial aid awards also carry over into their program’s fees. On average, Wheaton said, the college pays an additional $12,000 per student, per semester beyond tuition payments.

Starting in the fall, Provost Diane Michelfelder explained, there will be no compromising the 115-student cap, which is drafted in the budget for next year.

“The extension can’t happen again this year,” Michelfelder said. “We won’t be able to get that funding. The cap is the cap.”

Yet based on a survey sophomores took last year, the administration anticipates a similar number of study abroad applicants in the coming year to that of this academic season. Michelfelder plans on sending a letter to sophomores early next week explaining the changing policy, and also encouraging sophomores to consider studying abroad in the fall. Students will still undergo the same studying abroad review process. Older students and students required to study abroad for their majors receive priority.

There is no tangible incentive for students to rethink their plans and study abroad in the fall. But as Director of the International Center Mike Monahan explained, “For anybody applying as of right now, it is easier to get into the fall slots.” He continued, “If I was a student I would think it through, if I didn’t want to face such keen competition for the spring semester.”

Former RPC chair and mathematics professor Danny Kaplan questioned how much of a reason the cap alone would be for students to study in the fall. “I don’t know why people mostly want to go in the spring, but if you make people go in the fall, that will probably cause some sort of disadvantage for these students.”

Phil Lee ’08, a biology major, is uncertain of where he wants to study abroad, but knows he wants to go during spring semester. “Most of the people I know have cooperatively decided to go spring of next year so if I end up going in the fall I won’t be seeing them for a very long time,” he said.

Lee thinks that even if he wanted to study in the fall, applying by March 10 would be overwhelming. “There are so many different options, I can’t concentrate right now on where I’d want to study,” he said.

Anna Goldberg ’08, a political science major, plans on studying in India this fall. She said she chose to study in the fall because of her program, but that as a result, she now feels less stressed than she thinks other sophomores do. She also questioned if the cap would be effective in encouraging more students to study in the fall. “There is certain magic about the fall here, and most people don’t want to miss that unless they have a real reason to,” she said.

Lee also said he does not think this decision will necessarily lead to more people studying abroad in the fall; rather, he thinks it may simply result in fewer people studying abroad. “People don’t want to go the fall of their senior year, and not everyone is going to get their stuff together to study for this fall,” he said. “But maybe if all the really studious kids apply for the fall, it’ll open up some spots for us slackers.”

RPC’s longer-term plan

The creation of a second cap is related, but not directly linked to the RPC’s in-the-works draft of long-term strategic goals for the study abroad program. RPC chair and philosophy professor Martin Gunderson explained that forthcoming report does not call Macalester’s international focus into question. “It’s a powerful, central value that is also expressed in the President’s [Brian Rosenberg’s] strategic plan,” Gunderson said. Instead, the RPC is looking into ways to both enhance the study abroad program and ease its increasing costs, he said. Students could, for example, apply for external grants, study abroad during the summer or in January; the college could fundraise, create its own study abroad program, or invite students from other schools to participate in Macalester programs. The possibilities are extensive, and while the RPC’s report could call for significant changes in the study abroad program, it remains in its initial stages of drafting the report, which may have an effect on the sophomore class.

Monahan appeared before the RPC in December to present some of the above ideas. “It isn’t about the finances,” he said. “It’s about getting quality control. But it’s a balancing act. We want to keep quality as high as we can.”

Monahan said that while the International Center is biased toward study abroad programs, it is also aware of what financial responsibility means to the college. “We want to make sure that programs are academically strong, but also that you are getting the education for the money,” he said.

And while some see study abroad, according to Monahan, as a tuition export, an “enhancement rather than central,” to the school’s offerings, he explained, “We see it as no different from a physics or English major participating in an academic program on campus.”

Wheaton echoed this sentiment, referencing the United Nations flag that flies on campus. “The college’s leadership sees internationalism as central to the way Mac thinks about itself,” he said. “We also invest a lot of money to bring international students here. We send students to the world and bring the world to the students.