More Students Head Overseas in Freshman Year [The Wall Street Journal]

By Anjali Athavaley, The Wall Street Journal

Callie Broughton had an eventful freshman year at Florida State University — in Spain.

Ms. Broughton, now a 20-year-old junior, opted to study abroad in Valencia through a program for first-year students at Florida State. For one year, she lived in an apartment and took classes with other FSU students at the university’s Valencia Study Center. In her spare time, she explored Europe.

There were downsides to going abroad the first year of college. “Missing Thanksgiving and stuff I had never missed in 18 years was definitely weird,” she says. But the benefits outweigh the disadvantages: “You’re getting to see the world at such a young age,” she says. Ms. Broughton, an education major, is now a student recruiter for the program.

Freshman year has typically been considered a time for students to settle in and try living on their own for the first time, plan their course schedules and decide on a major. Now, a growing number of schools are expanding their study-abroad options for first-year students. “This was something that was very rarely done at all up until a few years ago,” says Brian Whalen, president and chief executive of the Forum on Education Abroad and executive director of the Office of Global Education at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.

Spending freshman year abroad presents challenges for younger students: easy access to alcohol, lack of supervision and, given the weak dollar, surprisingly high prices for basic goods and services.

But schools say these programs provide a more globally focused education. As the world economy becomes increasingly intertwined, they argue, overseas experience is an increasingly important credential. The programs also appeal to students in majors — such as the sciences — that offer less flexibility in studying abroad during junior and senior years, since they typically offer course credit for the general requirements that freshmen need to fill. In the past, students who studied abroad were primarily liberal-arts majors.

New York University already offers freshmen students in its general-studies program the option of spending their first year in Florence, Paris or London, in addition to the school’s New York City campus. In fall 2009, NYU expects to offer the option to other freshmen and allow them to apply directly to the study-abroad programs when applying for admission.

Syracuse University will offer a first-semester program for freshmen in Florence, Italy, this fall. The University of Mississippi is launching a study-abroad program in Edinburgh, Scotland, for freshman students next fall. Florida State offers out-of-state freshmen an added financial incentive: Participants in the program pay in-state tuition for the rest of their time as undergraduates at the university.

At some smaller schools, the programs serve another function: to help alleviate overcrowding in the dorms. Arcadia University in Glenside, Pa., created its first-year study-abroad program five years ago because of a housing shortage, says David Larsen, executive director of the university’s Center for Education Abroad.

Some colleges, including Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., Colby College in Waterville, Maine, and Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., which admit a small group of students in the spring semester, often encourage those students to go abroad in the fall before they start. Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vt., which offers February admission to about 100 students a year, sends admitted students a booklet highlighting options abroad for the first semester.

Changing Demographics

A 2007 study by the Institute of International Education, a New York-based nonprofit that manages study-abroad programs, shows that the distribution of students who study abroad is changing. In the 2005-06 school year, 34% of study-abroad students were juniors, down from 42% in the 1995-96 school year. The percentage of freshmen — albeit still small — doubled to 4% from 2% over the same period.

“Increasingly, we are going to see study abroad as something that is woven into the fabric of the undergraduate degree,” says Allan Goodman, president and chief executive of the Institute of International Education. “Economic drivers are pushing people to think about the world. Freshmen enter the university with ‘study abroad’ planted in their minds.”

Allowing freshman students — who in most cases have never lived away from home — to study abroad comes with risks, college officials say. “There’s the issue of maturity and having the coping skills and the resources,” says Valerie Eastman, director of off-campus study at Scripps College, a private liberal-arts school for women in Claremont, Calif., that doesn’t offer the program for freshman.

For one thing, alcohol consumption may be heightened while overseas. Freshmen are typically under the legal drinking age in the U.S. “When you figure it’s totally accessible in markets and anywhere overseas, even if you are under 21, some people have control issues,” says Ms. Eastman.

Barry Hendler, a junior at Arcadia, went abroad the fall semester of his freshman year to study at the University of Stirling in Scotland. Some of his peers were living away from home for the first time and had recently turned 18. “Some people took advantage of it too much, just enjoying the lower drinking age,” he says.

Schools say that their freshmen programs generally offer more handholding and supervision than do similar programs for upperclassmen. While students who study abroad later in their college career often live with host families and take classes at local universities with native students, freshmen participants typically take classes in English and live in dorms or apartments with other international students.

Parental Waivers

At many schools, freshmen students under the age of 18 who study abroad are required to have their parents sign a waiver that authorizes the school to act in lieu of the parent if needed. Some programs prohibit students who are not at least 18 to participate.

Another issue is money. This year, the cost of studying abroad in Europe — where most of the freshmen programs are offered — is higher as a result of the dollar’s sharp decline against the euro. (One euro currently buys about $1.45.) While students usually pay the programs in U.S. dollars, they are usually not eligible for financial aid, and the cost of extra traveling, food and other items can add up. For parents of freshmen, the bill can be hard to swallow — especially given that they have three more years of undergraduate tuition to pay.

Swallowing the Expense

Just ask Ellen Keats, 50, of Greenwich, Conn. She and her husband footed the bill for their daughter, Amy Goldstein, a freshman at Hamilton College, to study abroad in London last fall. The total cost for the semester, including tuition, room, food, books, and money for traveling was about $33,000. A semester at Hamilton is approximately $23,000. “It’s so expensive,” Ms. Keats says. “We weren’t going to nix the idea because of the expense. We just swallowed really hard.”

Schools that offer such freshman programs say that they are not intended for the average student. In many cases, the students have spent time overseas, or their parents studied abroad and want their kids to have the same experience. “I thought it would really be great for her,” says Ms. Keats, who studied abroad her junior year of college. “It kind of pushes the envelope of our comfort zone and our expectations of the college experience, but it’s a different world and you have to think globally.”

Last fall, Ms. Goldstein, the freshman student at Hamilton, lived in a dorm with six other women in London. She says she is not worried about adjusting to campus life. She bonded with the other Hamilton students in her program, so she has a group of friends going into the spring semester. And while the 18-year-old Ms. Goldstein says there are things about London that she will miss, she is excited to start on Hamilton’s campus in Clinton, N.Y.

“I’m ready to go and live and be in the place that I signed up for,” she says.