Vilsan ’19: The opportunity cost of study abroad

Staff Columnist
Tuesday, November 8, 2016

As an international student who has had the privilege of studying and living abroad, I completely understand the allure of the study abroad options at Brown. Especially for students who haven’t left the United States, the novelty of a semester in glamorous Paris or sleek Stockholm seems like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Indeed, students are often so caught up in the excitement that they don’t take a step back and rationalize the choice to pay Brown tuition without reaping the rewards of Brown’s resources.

A school as prestigious and costly as Brown delivers its worth in the form of facilities, world-class professors, career services and extracurricular opportunities. The cost of attending Brown is no small sum, but it can be considered a worthwhile investment that yields an even larger return. But many students choose to go abroad to seemingly exotic places such as France, Australia, Sweden or China. And while many of them cite countless benefits involved in choosing this path, many may also find themselves wondering: Why am I paying Brown tuition to attend a university where the tuition is a fraction of Brown’s? Many countries where Brown students study abroad consider a university education a resource that should be accessible to any willing prospective student. The same cannot be said about higher education in the United States, and the price tag reflects that.

In the case that the value of experiencing a new culture exceeds the Brown tuition, studying abroad is worth every penny. But for students for whom the excitement of a new experience outweighs the benefit of the program, it is worthwhile to consider how Brown study abroad programs, in terms of both finances and infrastructure, fall short.

At Brown, we have access to resources and human capital that are essentially priceless. Everyday access to libraries and inspiring professors and peers is no small advantage. And while attending another university with its own incredible resources is valuable in its own right, there are difficulties that arise when students attempt to take full advantage of those resources abroad. For example, there is no CareerLAB conveniently located in the middle of campus, nor are professors as familiar with your concentration path. Depending on where you decide to study, you may encounter language barriers that prohibit you from taking advantage of certain academic resources at the institution. Sometimes the number of resources that you are able to utilize while abroad far exceeds the number of those inaccessible to you, but this case may be an exception to the rule. So before stamping your passport, consider the possible downsides of choosing to leave Brown and its many services for a semester.

Furthermore, students’ expected payments and expenses remain constant whether or not they choose to study abroad or stay in Providence. But calculating the cost of living often proves difficult and can be a serious factor in determining affordability. It is no secret that Thayer Street doesn’t exactly embody the lap of luxury. The cost of living in European countries, for example, is often much higher than the one we are used to as college students in Providence. The day-to-day costs of studying abroad vary considerably, making it hard to calculate them accurately. Especially for those students who struggle to meet tuition costs at Brown, the additional costs encountered abroad are an important factor that the Office of International Programs cannot fully predict.

Studying abroad while at Brown offers students the amazing opportunity to discover and develop their passions anywhere they choose. For many, their international education is the highlight of college, and the costs associated with this journey are far outbalanced by the enriching exploits. Just make sure you’re looking beyond the initial thrill of airport arrival to the substantive resources and structural support that will be available to you once you’ve landed.

Fabiana Vilsan ’19 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and other op-eds to

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