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Finding the Right Study Abroad Program for You

Grace Lower | Feb 23, 2024

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When you decide to study abroad, there’s an incredible sense of power in knowing that you can pursue your coursework anywhere in the world (well, within reason). But that initial feeling of freedom can also be eclipsed by a sense of uncertainty. In recent years, studying abroad has soared in popularity—with so many options, how can you be certain that you’ll find a program that best fits your needs?


That’s where your university study abroad office comes into play. Assuming your university has one, you’ll have the chance to sit down with an advisor and learn about the different program types your university offers. While the naming conventions may vary, study abroad programs generally fall under four main categories: university sponsored, direct enrollment, exchange, and third-party.


As you weigh your options, you’ll want to consider your academic and personal goals, as well as your comfort level with unfamiliar education systems. Here are a few items to factor into your decision as you build your perfect study abroad experience.


The Basics


1. University Sponsored
This option typically involves traveling abroad with students and faculty from your university and taking pre-approved courses led by your professors. This tends to be an ideal option for students who 1) have limited travel experience or 2) want to use travel as a means to enrich their coursework.

2. Direct Enrollment
Not for the faint of heart, this type of study abroad experience means you’ll formally enroll as a student at a foreign university. This option is great for independent students with previous travel experience.

3. Exchange
In an exchange program, you and a student from a partnering international university will trade places. This option offers the freedom of a direct enrollment program, but since the American university approves the exchange in advance, there’s less hassle when transferring credits.

4. Third-Party
In this option, you will enroll in a program coordinated by an accredited study abroad provider. Third-party providers typically offer a broader range of programs than universities do, and they offer planning services and logistical support. While there are dozens of accredited providers to choose from, websites like gooverseas.com make it easy to compare and contrast.



1. University Sponsored

When you enroll in a university sponsored program, you are typically eligible to use the same financial aid you normally receive at your American university. This means that any federal financial aid, university scholarships, and grants can be applied to your time abroad. Of course, you’ll want to check with a trusted financial advisor to make sure there aren’t any unexpected costs or limitations.


2. Direct Enrollment

When you enroll directly into your host university, you may still be eligible to receive Stafford loans to finance your studies. However, since you will not be affiliated with an American university, you generally aren’t eligible for federal grants or state financial aid. Scholarships from your home university may not apply, either, so it’s smart to check with your financial aid office to confirm.

That said, higher education tends to be very expensive in the U.S, especially when compared to other countries. Although you might not be able to apply the same scholarships you normally would, there’s a chance your host country charges less for courses—meaning less tuition money out of your pocket.

3. Exchange

The costs of exchange programs vary based on your university’s policies, but you will typically pay tuition for your American university plus travel-related expenses like international health insurance.

4. Third-Party

The costs of third-party programs vary widely, but they tend to be somewhat pricier than other program types. That said, because third-party programs offer options that may not be available through other means, the cost can be worth it. Make sure to do your research and compare costs carefully; all providers include pricing information on their websites


University Sponsored

These programs feature courses led by professors from your university, or by international faculty associated with your academic department. You can rest assured that these courses will be well-aligned with your field of study, and you won’t have to worry about those credits transferring over.

2. Direct Enrollment

The courses that you’ll take through a direct enrollment program are typically the same courses that local students would take. Because of this, you get an immersive educational experience, surrounded by new perspectives, new people, and new pedagogies. Before you go, you’ll want to check with your study abroad office to make sure your credits will transfer—otherwise, your courses may not count toward your degree.

3. Exchange

Like direct enrollment, the courses that you’ll take in an exchange program will be defined by your host university. That said, many exchange programs pre-approved courses, saving you the time and hassle of transferring credits when you return to your American university.


4. Third-Party

One of the benefits of studying with a third-party provider is that there’s typically a wide variety of courses available, many of which might not be offered at your American university. Depending on your American university’s relationship with the third-party provider you choose, some of these courses can be pre-approved for credits to transfer automatically. If not, you will want to choose courses that align well with what your American university would offer. If glassblowing en español doesn’t sound like a course your university would accept as an art credit, you may want to reconsider adding it to your schedule. Before you commit to a program, your American university’s academic advisor can help you sort through available courses and help you find the right fit.



1. U
niversity Sponsored

One of the best aspects of a university sponsored program is the support you’ll receive while you’re there. Not only will you have a great network of fellow American students, but you’ll also have professors from your university to provide both personal and academic support. These programs tend to be meticulously planned, as well, so all you’ll need to do is sit back and enjoy the experience.


2. Direct Enrollment

There’s very little hand-holding in direct enrollment programs, which can be exciting for seasoned travelers. You’ll navigate a new university’s administration, build brand-new relationships with students from your host university, and tackle grown-up tasks like apartment hunting and financial aid enrollment with limited guidance. You’ll also be the master of your own travel plans—from weekend trips to longer-term vacations. Direct enrollment is an amazing opportunity for growth, if you’re up for the challenge.


3. Exchange

Exchange programs often create a middle ground between university sponsored and direct enrollment programs. You will still have connections at your American university to rely on as needed, but you’ll be responsible for using academic, student life, and financial resources offered at your host university. When it comes to extracurricular travel, you’ll be your own guide.


4. Third-Party

Third-party programs typically offer local staff to help you acclimate to your new surroundings and navigate your new academic environment. These staff members might also plan excursions and social events for participants in your program. With third-party study abroad, you have the freedom to make your trip your own. It’s up to you whether you want to use the on-site support provided, but it’s helpful to have the option.

No matter your interests, skills, or budget, there’s a study abroad program out there for you. With the help of a campus advisor, a few friends, or just your own intuition, you’ll need to weigh your options to decide which program will align most closely with your vision for your study abroad trip. A good program creates a framework for your time abroad, but ultimately, the beauty of travel is in the details—and those details are up to you.


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.

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