For many students, an off-campus study opportunity can be a touchstone experience for their college education. It might be the chance to study in London to learn about the impact of modern genetics research. Or, it could mean living on remote property in Texas to rehearse and perform Shakespeare’s plays. Study abroad is certainly a popular option as almost 300,000 students a year participate in study-abroad programs.
Exciting places. New people. Different cultures. Just like a travel brochure.
A travel brochure, however, is for a vacation, while an off-campus study experience can and should be both rigorous and educational. But how can you identify the difference between a great learning opportunity from an expensive boondoggle?
Why Should Students & Parents Care?
The primary concern many students and especially their parents have is the financial burden for off-campus study. Exact figures can be hard to come by as costs can vary widely for opportunities in the US versus abroad. GoAbroad.com estimates the average total expense for studying off campus in a foreign country is around $18,000 per semester. The cost to the student, however, isn’t usually much different than what they would pay on campus. Expenses typically include:
- Cultural activities and excursions
There are additional, less obvious costs that can make off-campus study not worth the investment of money and time. For example, if you do see this experience as just a vacation from “real” school, you could fail the necessary course requirements to be completed. Perhaps you become stuck in the local party scene or even find yourself in dangerous situations by thinking you’re an invincible American abroad.
Or, there could be the opposite problem: You never leave your old world behind.
You might become isolated, lonely and homesick. As a result, you’re consumed with staying in touch with family and friends back home via Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. If so, you’ll miss out on the experiences taking place all around you and the real value of the abroad experience.
Given these reasons and others, it’s not uncommon for some to see the cost-to-benefit ratio of off-campus study courses not worth the investment.
Benefits of Studying Abroad
There are, of course, the well-established benefits of off-campus and study abroad programs:
- Taking part in educational opportunities not available at your school
- Expanding your worldview beyond a provincial frame of reference
- Increasing your language skills
- Discovering new interests
- Networking for future career opportunities
- Having a seminal experience to include on a graduate school application
Ultimately, the multiple benefits of off-campus study programs come down to cultivating an interdisciplinary approach to the experience. Sure, you may go to London to study modern genetics, but you’ll also see the breadth of English culture in action. For example, how its literature ties into its history, and how its politics have developed from the Magna Carta up to the present day.
Making connections between these seemingly disparate topics is a fundamental skill all students should learn: critical thinking and analysis.
It’s a Flat World
Beyond the traditional benefits of studying off campus is the reality of the world we live in today. As per Thomas Friedman’s 2005 book The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, the increasing rate of globalization has made the historical boundaries between countries, companies and individuals become both less relevant and onerous.
Friedman emphasizes the danger of Americans not understanding their country’s shift from a manufacturing economy to a service economy because of globalization:
“In societies that have more memories than dreams, too many people are spending too many days looking backward. They see dignity, affirmation, and self-worth not by mining the present but by chewing on the past. And even that is usually not a real past but an imagined and adorned past. Indeed, such societies focus all their imagination on making that imagined past even more beautiful than it ever was, and then they cling to it … rather than imagining a better future and acting on that.”
No one, old or young but especially the next generation, can afford to have blinders on regarding our world’s transformation.
The experiences studying off campus provide are that they promote an appreciation of cultural diversity instead of ethnocentrism. And the intercultural communication skills students develop will also lead to embracing cultural pluralism in place of stereotyping or, even worse, xenophobia.
How to Make Off-Campus Study Experiences Productive
While the potential benefits of off-campus study programs are well documented, there are some key steps you need to take to ensure the experience is as productive as possible:
- Determine what your exact goals are for your off-campus study experience.
- Choose how long you want your program/course to last.
- Pick a geographic location.
- Investigate the options your school offers.
- Check out additional educational opportunities from other providers.
- Make sure credits from third-party providers will be accepted at your school.
- Calculate the total financial cost and come up with a game plan to pay for it.
And the off-campus experience can be built around a student’s available resources.
For example, Cornell College offers courses with varying tuition in different locations and still include the intellectual rigor to make the most of the experience.
Two examples of low-cost off-campus study opportunities there are a studio art course in Chicago and an ecology course in the scenic northern woods of Minnesota. Higher-end options Cornell College offers include studying the Holocaust and human rights in Germany, wildlife conservation in Costa Rica, and geology in New Zealand.
One final aspect of off-campus study programs to investigate is the level of faculty supervision. Sure, you don’t want every minute of every day for a whole semester or year to be prescheduled. When it comes to the course or courses you’ll be completing, however, the amount of instructor oversight and interaction you can expect is key.
After all, to make the most out of this experience, you’ll want to optimize both the academic and cultural opportunity.
There is no better way to ensure this happens than to be guided by a faculty mentor the entire way.