Students may face additional fees for study abroad programs

by Shara TibkenEditor in Chief

Students traveling abroad often face tight budgets, but those budgets might be stretched a little tighter thanks to a proposal by the International Education Working Group.

The group, which consists of faculty and staff members and one student, has been examining Simpson’s study abroad options in hopes of improving the programs.

“It can be used as a roadmap for future decisions on international education,” said Steve Griffith, vice president and dean for academic affairs. “There’s no timeline on it, as such, but it’s a series of recommendations.”

One possible suggestion for expanding the programs is imposing a $100-$150 fee on all May Term trips and a $400-$500 fee on all semester trips. The fees will not actually be applied toward the trip the student is attending but will be placed in a fund for faculty member use.

“This fee would fund course development opportunities, help provide other support for the program and serve as a reserve fund in case of emergencies,” said page 13 of the final draft of the Working Group’s Comprehensive Plan for International Education at Simpson College. “It is projected that about 50 percent of the revenue generated from the program fee would be used for new course development, sending faculty to the site of a new course to make final preparations.”

The main reasoning behind instituting the fees is to eliminate Simpson’s dependency on third party vendors like EF Educational Tours. It is hoped that once faculty members are able to travel to possible study abroad locations, they will be able to lead trips on their own. This should then lower costs for students.

“One of the things we know now is that when we go to third party vendors, they bring a lot of expertise, but at the same time they’re charging overhead in the cost per students,” Griffith said. “The idea is that if we can enhance our own programs, encouraging faculty to create their own programs…then we can decrease the costs to students overall.”

Still, reducing dependency on third party vendors is a long-term goal and will take some time to develop. In the meantime, students will incur the added fees.

“Do I like the idea of tacking it on to all students who use the programs?” Griffith said. “No, not necessarily, but it is something that they’re benefiting from. … It’s the way good schools develop and enhance and add quality to their study abroad programs. We wouldn’t encourage it if we didn’t think it was absolutely necessary.”

Despite benefits of the proposal, some faculty members have concerns about the possible fees.

“I understand both sides of the argument, but I just think we need to talk about it as a community and for everyone to understand why this money is being charged,” said Lora Friedrich, chair of the social science department, associate professor of sociology and member of the Working Group.

There are concerns about the fee becoming a sort of “luxury tax” and discouraging students from studying abroad.

“I think by and large students pay for trips with borrowed money, and so what happens is that it’s a one time fee of $100, which in and of itself doesn’t seem like a big deal,” Friedrich said “But when it’s borrowed money, and when you end up paying back that money over 10 or 20 years, we’re not talking about $100 anymore. … I hate to see that kind of debt hanging over someone’s head.”

The group also discussed placing May Term trips at a set amount, and students will count on paying the specified amount, no matter what. This means if trips come in under budget, the students may not receive refunds.

Refunds have been issued in the past. The 2005 May Term trip to Thailand and Vietnam led by Friedrich and Nick Proctor, associate professor of history, came in more than $700 under budget. Students who went on the trip, including senior Jamie Olberding, received the money back as a refund.

“It was a massive amount of money,” Olberding said. “I would have felt robbed if I didn’t get the money back. It’s my money, and if it’s not spent, I feel I am entitled to the refund.”

On the other hand, if an emergency occurs and the trip costs more than expected, the students won’t have to pay that amount out of their own pockets.

The students and faculty members stranded in Russia past their date of departure in May Term 2006 ended up paying $250 more than expected. With the new proposal, they would not have to incur the costs on their own.

“Here they’re stuck in Russia, no fault of their own, and suddenly they have to come up with $250 extra,” Griffith said. “That doesn’t seem right. But, where are you going to get the money? The reserve fund would be available for that type of emergency use.”

Members of the Working Group are unsure whether students will have input or how the fee will be approved.

“I hope that if it comes to pass that students have an opportunity to weigh in on it,” Friedrich said. “Otherwise it seems to be taxation without representation. … I honestly believe that this community works as a democracy. I feel heard, and I think there will be a lot more discussion before this finally happens.”

The college is looking at implementing the new fee during the next academic year, and it may affect students going on May Term trips in 2008.

“Living internationally changed who I am fundamentally,” Friedrich said. “I believe it’s an important part of being a global citizen. And as troubling as it seems to me in some ways, the idea that it (the fee) could facilitate the opportunity for more people to understand what it means to be a global citizen is thrilling. But, I have real issues with it.”