Free foreign trips lure young

January 17, 1997

This year for the first time students who enrolled at the Lake Erie College in Ohio were handed passport applications along with their other registration forms. If they stay until their third year, the college promises to send all 120 of them overseas for two weeks at no charge beyond their regular tuition.

It is one of a growing number of financial incentives meant to interest more Americans in studying abroad. "What we're trying to say to students is that they need to broaden their horizons," said Mary Ann Kalbaugh, Lake Erie's director of admissions.

About 84,000 Americans studied abroad during 1994/95, about 11 per cent more than in the previous school year, according to the Institute of International Education.

But that is fewer than a fifth as many as the number of foreign students studying in the United States, and far short of some university administrators' goal of sending 10 per cent of college students overseas for at least a semester by the year 2000.

"Colleges are trying to make learning about the world something that is a part of their curriculum," said David C. Larsen, director of the Center for Education Abroad at Beaver College.

Since 1994, Beaver has flown all of its first-year students to London for a week each spring for a token $150 "as a way to jump-start that process," Dr Larsen said. Only six Beaver students studied abroad before the college's subsidised "London Preview Experience" began. This year, 61 undergraduates who got that week-long taste of foreign travel have returned to spend a semester or more overseas.

The financial incentives being offered by the universities and colleges are not entirely altruistic. An increasing number of these institutions now maintain their own facilities in other countries, for which they charge the same tuition that they would in the United States, even though the costs are often lower to the schools than if the students stayed on campus.

Webster University in St Louis has guaranteed all first-year students roundtrip tickets to study on one of its four campuses in Europe in their junior or senior years. Already, 40 have inquired about it.

"Left to their own devices, a very small percentage of them would go," said Deborah Dey, the school's vice president for enrolment management. "Why? Money. So we were looking for something with real substance that would get their attention."

Free or low-cost travel abroad also helps increase enrolment and retention, and are increasingly prominent selling points in the promotional materials of many colleges and universities.

"If you have some kind of hook like this to retain the students, that's going to benefit the college, too," Ms Kalbaugh said.

"The Grand Tour was something that the wealthy took," said Charles Faust, provost at Slippery Rock University in rural western Pennsylvania, which pays up to $500 toward the air fare of any student who goes abroad. "Half our students today are still first-generation college students, so our financial assistance isn't as much incentive as necessity."

Linfield College in Oregon pays the full air fare of any student who travels abroad for at least a semester. That lowers their cost to about the same as staying home, said Ellen Summerfield, the school's director of international programs.

Money is not the only problem for Americans who might want to study overseas. Strict curriculum requirements at many US schools can also make it tough. And fears of terrorism make some parents reluctant to let their children travel.

"There's no more intense educational experience, especially for students who have not been abroad before," said Dr Summerfield.

"It's broadening in unimaginable ways. But because Americans don't have that easy contact with other countries and other cultures, they can tend to forget that it's a big world out there."

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