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Financial Aid for Study Abroad: Facts, Tips, and a Bit of Advice

Grace Lower | Dec 21, 2020

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When you decide to study abroad, you’re making an investment in a transformative learning experience. But like any investment, your time abroad is going to come at a price. Understanding financial aid is an important—and not particularly fun—part of the process. If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably be spending plenty of evenings scrolling through example budgets and financial aid FAQs in your dorm, amazed at how pricey your semester abroad could actually be.

While I am not a finance expert, I’ve picked up a thing or two from my own study abroad experience. That’s why I’ve compiled an overview of the key terms and financial aid options that you might encounter while planning your travels. Reading articles like this is a great starting point, but it’s your responsibility to determine which funding options are best for your needs. You’ll want to gather information from a variety of credible sources and schedule appointments with your university’s study abroad and financial aid offices. Talk to friends or family members who have studied abroad and see how they navigated their financial aid. And before you make any major decisions, run your plans by a trusted financial advisor. This could be a parent, a mentor, or a university staff member—just make sure they’re someone who knows your situation and has your best interests at heart.

Types of financial aid: a basic overview

Federal aid

Federal aid refers to any financial support provided by the federal government, including grants, loans, scholarships, and work-study opportunities. As long as your program is approved for credit by your university, you can use some types of federal aid while abroad. Below you’ll find a few kinds of federal funding that may be available to you, depending on your financial need and academic interests. Be sure to consult the studentaid.gov website for more information on your options.

  • Loans
    • Stafford Loan: offered through the U.S. Department of Education, this fixed-rate loan is available to most students, regardless of financial need
    • Perkins Loan: this type of loan is relatively low-interest, and it is available for full- or part-time students who have significant financial need
  • Grants and Scholarships
    • Pell Grant: administered through the U.S. Department of Education, this is one of the most commonly awarded need-based grants for undergraduates
    • Supplemental Educational Opportunities Grant (SEOG): this grant is available for students with the greatest need for financial aid. Unlike Pell Grants, the amount awarded to students is determined by their institution, rather than the Department of Education
    • The Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship: sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, this program enables Pell Grant recipients to receive extra support for their study abroad experience
    • National Security Exchange Program (NSEP) Boren Scholarships: Boren Scholarships fund opportunities for U.S. undergraduates to study less commonly taught languages in countries critical to U.S. interests
    • The Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) Program: this federally funded language and cultural immersion program is intended to help students master one of 14 languages considered vital in U.S. foreign relations

State aid

State aid isn’t as widely discussed as federal financial aid, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t explore what’s available. Most states offer a range of merit- and need- based scholarships for eligible students. Financial support varies by state, so you’ll want to do your research to determine which programs might be a fit for you.

University or institutional aid

Most universities offer scholarships specifically for study abroad and international education programs. Beyond that, departments or degree programs within the university often have their own sets of scholarships, many of which can be applied toward study abroad experiences. Explore your university’s website, consider opportunities associated with your major, and talk to your advisors to get a sense of available funding. You’ll want to be careful, however; some university-sponsored scholarships are limited to on-campus activities.

Aid from community, nonprofit, and private organizations

Sometimes financial aid can be found in unlikely places. A wide range community groups, foundations, and nonprofit organizations offer scholarships that can be applied to study abroad programs. For-profit companies like Coca-Cola and Tortuga Backpacks have their own scholarships, as well, many of which can be used to cover the costs of travel. Not sure where to begin? A quick Google search for “study abroad scholarships” will bring up a variety of resources to help you sift through your options.


Applying aid to your study abroad program

Most universities have a process to ensure that financial aid can be applied toward an approved study abroad program. When planning for my study abroad experience through Ohio State University, I was given a checklist detailing each step. I was required to fill out a university-specific scholarship application, then submit a budget letter and a letter of intent to Ohio State’s online portal. I then attended a mandatory “Funding Education Abroad” workshop hosted by the study abroad office. Throughout the process, I was encouraged to reach out to my financial aid and my study abroad advisor with any questions.

Your university will have its own set of protocols, but you’ll probably have access to several advisors and a variety of online resources. If something doesn’t make sense, speak up! It’s better to ask a silly question than overlook a key detail—especially when financial aid is involved.

Other strategies for success

Applying for grants, loans, and scholarships is important, but it doesn’t guarantee that your travels will be fully funded. Take some time to make a travel budget, and save as much as you can in the months leading up to your trip. Consider using platforms like GoFundMe and YouCaring to ask your social networks for financial support. If fundraising isn’t your cup of tea, part-time jobs or “side-hustles” are a useful way to bolster your travel funds (for inspiration, check out The Financial Diet’s 12 Side Hustles You Can Do From Bed). Funding your travel requires time and effort, but the end result is worth the hustle.

Studying abroad is an incredible privilege, but make no mistake: no travel experience is worth sacrificing your financial stability. Be smart about how you plan for your trip. Take advantage of the resources around you, and educate yourself on the real costs of travel. Be meticulous, and pay attention to deadlines. Make sure you understand your financial aid options so that you’re empowered to make the best possible decision. With a solid strategy in place, you can worry less about finances and focus on the adventure that awaits!

About the Author

Grace Lower

Grace Lower is a recent college graduate with a love for writing and an incurable case of wanderlust. When she's not exploring new places, Grace enjoys teaching English as a Second Language, making terrible puns, and running incredibly long distances at incredibly slow speeds.

Read more of Grace’s blogs

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