The Value of Freshman Study Abroad

Gap Year Programs Thinking Beyond Borders FAQ

In response to my last post “Bringing Purpose to Higher Education,” a reader posted a comment highlighting a key concern that is central to most students: money. Study abroad programs generally are expensive. They are particularly expensive when they come in the form of gap years, as this is an addition to the cost of college. Often, this cost is prohibitive for students who need these educational opportunities.

A TBB alumni parent emailed me in response to this comment. With her permission, I share her family’s story for two reasons: 1) it demonstrates that a freshman study abroad experience that develops purpose and direction can be cost effective for students, and 2) there is enormous value in freshman study abroad. This second point is important to remember. With parents, students, federal and state governments, and even student alumni associations making major investments in our higher education system, it is critical that they recognize freshman study abroad as a highly valuable investment to improve student outcomes.

Special thanks to the parent of an alum of our gap year programs who shared this story! Enjoy…

Hi Robin,

I just read your recent blog entry about bringing purpose to higher education and the comment about how few can afford to do a program like TBB. This is definitely a financial reality, but since college is so expensive to begin with, it is prudent to consider the potential cost of NOT doing a program like TBB if a prospective college student doesn’t have a true sense of purpose before he or she goes. Here is our family’s experience:

Our daughter was one of those driven, high achiever, team captain types who went straight to a private college after graduating from high school.  She had all the credentials, but lacked one key thing: a sense of purpose. Actually, I believe she has always felt a sense of purpose, but it got buried under the weight of the numerous high expectations of others, which eventually crushed her mid-way through college. She took time off, worked on an organic farm, and became certified as a yoga instructor. These were pretty different activities from what she had done all through high school and first two years of college. It was good for her and she managed to return to college and graduate cum laude.

But, there was a price to this path. The biggest price was what she paid in her own unhappiness. Then there was the price that we paid as parents, wondering if we had consciously or unconsciously set expectations for her that she felt obligated to meet. It’s horrible to see one’s child in misery and wonder how it all started and how to make things better. But the other practical price, which parents should know about, was that when our daughter took time off from college, it was not entirely voluntary. She simply could not have continued on that driven path any longer – mentally, physically, or emotionally. And the crisis for her came after that “grace period” when a student can get a tuition refund if they decide to leave mid-semester. To put it bluntly, we lost $25,000 in non-refundable tuition. OUCH. Ouch for us financially, but also for the anguish and guilt she suffered knowing what it was costing her parents to subsidize a hiatus in her education. Not just the lost tuition, but the cost of supporting her activities while she healed. She did contribute a fair chunk from her own earnings, but still…

The point is that Thinking Beyond Borders, or a similar program for freshman study abroad, might be the best investment a parent can make in their child’s education – and life. If I remember correctly, what we lost in college tuition for our daughter is about what we paid for our son to join Thinking Beyond Borders’ Global Gap Year. So they each have had a $25,000 supplement in their educational expenses. But, the difference is that our daughter’s was money that simply flew out the window, while our son’s was clearly an intentional investment. It’s entirely possible that he, too, will choose to take a break during his four college years, but I am confident it will be a purposeful break, not an involuntary one.

And here’s something else: our son’s strengths are not reflected in his high school transcript. His options for college were fewer than our daughter’s. Of course, as his mom, I believe he would be an asset to any campus, but a recent experience reinforced my feeling that the TBB program put his credentials in a whole new realm: budding world citizen with huge potential to contribute to positive global change. Here’s how I know: My neighbors across the street were over for dinner last week and our son joined us. Our neighbor is the president of prestigious private university. Of course, they wanted to hear all about our son’s TBB experience and asked many questions. I was in awe of how he responded, all the details he remembered, all the things he had internalized not only about the homestay families and the cultures in the countries they visited, but about their economies, geography and natural resources, politics, the social issues facing them. He clearly learned a ton, all of which is informing him as he goes forward. Our neighbor was taking all this in, and said to our son, “You should come to my university.” He’s never seen our son’s high school transcript, but I think he could easily assess what our son could contribute to the student body. I would call this a resounding endorsement of TBB! I think colleges are hungry for this kind of student, not just because of what that student potentially brings to campus but also because a TBB grad clearly brings with him or her a greater sense of purpose, which in turn contributes to success on campus. Just as parents are investing in their child’s education through the tuition they pay, the college is investing in students who will succeed in the programs they offer. 

Well, I ramble. But the blog sparked many thoughts for me, which I felt compelled to pass on. I support your point about the role a sense of purpose plays in helping our children succeed. The investment in our children’s higher education is a monumental one on many levels, and though there is a price tag attached no matter what, it is so much better that it is purposeful and intentional than just random and driven by irrelevant criteria. I am very conscious that this whole topic is largely a “rich person’s problem” because few of us are fortunate to have a disposable $25,000 to spend on supplementing a four-year college experience, whether it be intentional as in our son and TBB, or unintentional as in our daughter and losing a semester’s tuition to her college. And it shouldn’t be that way – it shouldn’t cost so much to get an education. But that is a whole other conversation.

I keep thinking about our daughter’s comment after listening to her brother’s presentations at the TBB graduation: “Wow – I just feel so shallow.” This, after more than $250,000 for four years at an elite college.  Wow, indeed.


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