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How to Get Scholarships and Financial Aid for Study Abroad

University of Avila in Spain.
University of Avila near Madrid in Spain.

"I'll see you next September," I kept repeating. It was December, the end of the fall semester of my junior year at Columbia University. I would be studying abroad in Madrid for the spring and was saying goodbye to my friends. Some of them would also be studying abroad: Paris, Beijing, Buenos Aires…all these destinations popped up in conversations. But one single remark stuck in my mind. "I wish I could go abroad, too," a friend from another school lamented, "but it's just too expensive."

Study Abroad: An Unattainable Luxury?

Traveling to many foreign countries in itself is expensive. From flights and accommodations to food and health insurance, the expenses can quickly add up to a significant, if not entirely unaffordable, bill.

Studying abroad includes conventional costs cited above and more. Depending on your studying, you will have to factor in tuition and supplies, ranging from books to electronic devices and web access to specific equipment.

Moreover, as a student abroad, you will likely want to travel in your destination country or even continent. Even if you wish to use public transportation (or the occasional taxi after those long nights out, experiencing the "local culture," of course), this will also add up after some time. Then, there is the need for a smartphone.

The list goes on and on, and after totaling everything up, you are likely to be deterred from going abroad, given the high cost. And that is not even considering the need for an emergency fund should anything go wrong. Studying abroad is expensive and thus unattainable for many.

But it need not be.

Making Study Abroad Available To All

From experiencing a distant culture, learning a foreign language, and becoming more independent, the reasons for studying abroad vary. In fact, extensive studies, such as those conducted by IES abroad, have demonstrated that students who study abroad increase their job prospects. Studying abroad is essential for peaceful international relationships and competitiveness in the global marketplace. To support students in this endeavor, numerous educational and governmental institutions and private organizations provide options for scholarships and financial aid.

Study Abroad Funding Options

The primary options available to students seeking financial assistance for study abroad are as follows:

1) Federal and University Financial Aid and Scholarships

Depending upon which college you attend, the requirements for applying for financial aid and scholarships towards study abroad will vary. Plan ahead, and read the fine print. In other words, make an appointment with a financial aid advisor well ahead of time, even during your first year. Here are some relevant questions to ask, moving from the general to the specific:

  • Do you pay the same tuition abroad as back home? Some schools, such as Columbia University, charge the same tuition fees for studying abroad and at home. Other schools, such as Maryland State University, charge a program fee, which varies according to your chosen program and destination. On the one hand, this allows students to save by choosing a less costly program and destination; on the other, it deters people from going to more expensive destinations. Columbia University, for example, argues that it wants to keep things equal for students seeking to go to any destination and encourages study abroad by keeping the fees the same.
  • Can university or federal financial aid be applied towards study abroad? A straightforward but essential question. In many cases, the answer is yes. Again, find out the answer to this crucial question early on. There are many resources, including the standard forms used for FAFSA, in the Aid of International Study section.
  • If so, are there any restrictions as to which programs you can attend? Congratulations, your school allows you to use financial aid for study abroad. Now, it is time to read the fine print. For example, does the Office of Financial Assistance differentiate between state and non-state-sponsored programs? For example, suppose you are studying at the University of Maryland. In that case, state-sponsored aid will not go towards a Syracuse University program. Other schools may also have requirements regarding the program's difficulty (e.g., the number of foreign language semesters required to be admitted), so be sure to inquire about such issues.
  • Are there study abroad specific scholarships?
    In addition to regular financial aid, some schools offer scholarships specifically for study abroad. Given that the application process frequently involves personal statements, high GPAs, recommendation letters, and more, it is recommended that you plan early. If you find out in your first year what you will need to go abroad in your third, chances are there will not be any unexpected surprises. lists factors that determine scholarships, categorizing them as:
    • Merit-based
    • Student-specific
    • Destination-specific
    • Program-specific
    • Subject-specific
So, when inquiring about scholarships, consult not only with the Study Abroad and Financial Aid offices but also with your departmental advisor and any organizations you interact with on campus.

Lastly, inquire about exchange programs; here, an international student will attend your home university while you attend theirs. Costs of living vary, but tuition remains the same.
  • When will your money be transferred?
  • Receiving a scholarship or financial aid can make the world appear rosy. However, wait to take off until you know the specifics. Be sure to find out when and how your money will be transferred. I have known numerous students abroad who had to borrow money from locals because their financial aid check was being sent to their home instead of their new address abroad. While empathizing with their dilemma, I wondered whether planning ahead could have avoided it. If you know that your money will arrive later, be sure to have some access to backup funding.

2) Third Party Programs: Scholarships And Lower Tuition

Third-party programs, meaning those not associated with your home institution, can also be a source of scholarships. CIEE, an independent organization founded 75 years ago, offers more than $3 million in various scholarships yearly for study abroad, depending on your needs and eligibility. Visit their website to see the requirements and contact them to find out how they can help you. SIT, AIFS, and others also offer scholarships. and others also offer scholarships. Never hesitate to ask a third-party program to which you apply if they provide any financial aid through scholarships or grants.

This brings me to a point I already touched upon above choosing a destination can significantly reduce your expenses if you keep the cost of living in mind. Developing countries not only allow you to save money but will provide you with a perspective on the world different from your home life. In other words, remember to look beyond Europe when choosing a study abroad location.

3) Attending Colleges Abroad Directly

College tuition in the United States is extremely high compared to that in other countries. By enrolling in a program directly, you pay local tuition. In Germany, for example, that can be as little as 300 Euros a semester if attending a public university.

However, enrolling directly also means that you will have to withdraw from your home university. Most likely, you also will not receive credits for the courses you take while abroad. So, when choosing to do so, weigh the costs against the benefits. Could you go abroad for a summer instead? By taking the path of summer study abroad, you will retain academic momentum at your home institution. You will likely return with an enhanced education, setting you ahead of your peers.

If you add all the factors and studying abroad during college is still too expensive, there is no need to despair. Another option is to graduate and go abroad after college. From teaching English and learning to tango to working as a freelance photographer for an adventure sports company, there are numerous ways to sustain a life abroad on a budget. In your free time, you can interact with locals and learn the local language, for example. All in all, be patient, alert, and persistent. If you are a hard worker, your efforts will eventually pay off.


Program Finder of the Institute of International Education: site allows you to search programs by field of study, program location, participant type, and participant country/territory of origin. Results are easy to navigate and show program types, including grants, fellowships, scholarships, and exchanges.

Transitions Abroad section on Study Abroad Funding: a comprehensive list of resources, including information on Fulbrights fellowships, scholarships, and more.

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