College in Illinois Finds a Way to Help Low-Income Students Go Abroad

Adam Gerik

Stormy Almanza, a senior, got to spend six weeks in Ghana through a program at Augustana College that provides $2,000 to every student to study abroad.
April 29, 2013

Stormy Almanza figured she'd graduate from Augustana College this spring without ever studying abroad. After cobbling together scholarships and loans to cover tuition at the small, private college in Illinois, she didn't have the funds to go overseas. Even the application fees for a passport seemed like a stretch.

So it might come as a surprise to learn that Ms. Almanza recently spent six weeks studying in Ghana, where she took courses at a local university, lived with a host family, and worked as an intern at a nonprofit group. She was able to go thanks to a program called Augie Choice, a five-year-old pledge by the college to give $2,000 to each and every one of its 2,500 students for international study.

This year more than half of Augustana's graduating seniors studied overseas, the college says, up from 37 percent before Augie Choice began. And of the students on international programs, half of them qualified for federal financial aid. Previously just a third of the participants were from the lowest income groups. Over all, about 60 percent of Augustana's students receive federal aid.

Nationally, only a small fraction of those who study abroad are from low-income families, a narrow slice of what is an already small population: Less than 10 percent of American undergraduates study overseas. Nearly three-quarters of students in a recent national survey said cost was an obstacle to their going abroad. That troubles the many educators who believe that international study is indispensable for graduates in a global economy.

While Augustana's program is still young, the effort's initial success suggests that colleges can, for relatively little money, get students to go abroad who otherwise wouldn't. "Augie Choice changes the conversation," says Allen P. Bertsche, director of international and off-campus study, "from 'Can I study abroad?' to 'What program should I go on?'"

Perhaps fittingly, the idea for Augie Choice came from a student who had studied abroad and argued in a column in the campus newspaper that more of his classmates should have the same opportunity.

At about the same time, Augustana officials were seeking ways to give students greater international exposure, setting a goal in a new strategic plan of increasing study-abroad participation.

Affordability clearly was an issue. When the college surveyed some 600 students about why they didn't go overseas, the No. 1 reason cited was cost. Although Augustana permits students to use their financial aid to study in another country, it's the extras that add up for students like Ms. Almanza: plane tickets and passport fees, vaccinations and international insurance coverage.

Money is also a crucial consideration for Augustana, which lacks a large endowment and is dependent on tuition revenue to support day-to-day operations. The college decided that tuition would finance Augie Choice as well; $500 per student is set aside each year to pay for the scholarship. (The funds also can be used for internships or undergraduate research experiences, but most students choose international study.)'

'Study Abroad Is for Everyone'

It's the structure of Augie Choice, not simply the money itself, that makes the program effective, study-abroad experts say. One of them is Mark Salisbury, who joined Augustana as director of institutional research and assessment after Augie Choice had already begun. Mr. Salisbury, who has led large research projects on the factors that affect study-abroad participation, says the program's being upfront and universal—the only eligibility criterion is that the student first earn 60 credits toward a degree—"removes the perception that study abroad is just for a particular sort of student. It says that study abroad is for everyone."

Traditional scholarships, by contrast, tend to be more limited, and because students typically qualify only once they've been accepted into an international-study program, the offers do little to encourage applications from those who might not see study abroad as being for them. Augie Choice gets "students in the door" of the study-abroad office, Mr. Salisbury says.

Other colleges are trying approaches that similarly seek to convey the idea that overseas study is an opportunity open to all students. The University of Kentucky has started programs tailored to those who don't typically go abroad, such as minority or first-generation college students. "It's not just money but messaging," says Anthony C. Ogden, Kentucky's director of education abroad.

Indeed, Mr. Bertsche, Augustana's international-study director, points out that Augie Choice could have been set up in a way that reduced costs but was not as highly visible to students, like cutting program fees. Individual student grants are "more tangible," he says. (Because Augustana is on a trimester system, nearly all students go overseas on programs organized by the college itself.)

But while financial assistance is necessary for many students, like Ms. Almanza, to go overseas, Augustana administrators say money alone is not enough. As Augie Choice was being put in place, the college expanded its study-abroad options. Mr. Bertsche's office is working with faculty members and academic advisers to help students fit an international experience into their courses of study. From when students first arrive on campus, they are asked how they plan to use their Augie Choice money, he says.

Although Augustana has met its goal of raising study-abroad participation, some Augie Choice funds are going unused, and college officials want to know why.

Meanwhile, Augustana is talking up Augie Choice, even hanging a banner in the airport in nearby Moline, Ill., so that prospective students and faculty members interviewing for positions know of the college's commitment to international study. Now, says W. Kent Barnds, who oversees admissions, students are talking about how they might use Augie Choice even before they've been accepted.