By Quinn Hull
The College has changed the way it bills for study away. Starting next school year, all students who choose to study abroad with an affiliated program will be billed Oberlin’s tuition, around $44,512 for 2012-2013 (or half that per semester). That revises the old policy, in which the College billed students for the tuition costs of their study away programs, in addition to a $2,000 administrative ‘study away fee.’ The policy for unaffiliated programs remains unchanged.
Tuition costs for many study away programs range between $10,000 and $20,000 per semester, compared with around $22,000 per semester at Oberlin, meaning that most students who studied abroad under the old policy got billed less than they would have had they stayed at Oberlin. But does that mean that they’ll pay more to study away under the new policy, which instead bills students for the entire, slightly higher, Oberlin tuition?
Honestly, says the College administration, for many students, not really.
“It’s not meant to limit people,” says Ellen Sayles, the Associate Dean of Studies and Director of Programs for International Study, of the new policy.
For the majority of students receiving any kind of need-based Financial Aid, the amount families actually pay — what Office of Financial Aid headman Rob Reddy calls the ‘expected family contribution’ — will be the same under the new policy as it was for the old.
“[For] how we fund students, and quite honestly for students who are financial aid recipients,” said Reddy, “there’s no change.”
This ‘expected family contribution’ is determined by a pretty rudimentary subtraction problem: ‘billed costs’ minus ‘financial need.’ In order to better understand how this works, here are three hypothetical scenarios for hypothetical student ‘Jerry’: studying at Oberlin, studying abroad under the old policy, and studying abroad under the new policy.
1) On-campus semester:
Hypothetical ‘Billed Costs’ (Tuition, Fees, Room and Board) — $50,000
Hypothetical ‘Financial Need’ — $40,000
Hypothetical ‘Expected Family Contribution’ — $10,000
2) Study away semester, old policy:
‘Billed costs’ of the program — $41,000
‘Financial Need’ — $31,000
‘Expected Family Contribution’ — $10,000
Also: $2,000 ‘study away fee’
3) Study away semester, new policy:
‘Billed costs’ (are the same as they are for a normal semester at Oberlin) — $50,000
‘Financial Need’ — $40,000
‘Expected Family Contribution’ — $10,000
**Note: numbers purely hypothetical
In all three scenarios, the ‘expected family contribution,’ what Jerry and his kin actually pay the College, stays constant; what changes is the amount of aid he receives — need and merit-based grants, loans and, if he’s on campus, work-study.
Because the tuition costs of each study away program vary, under the old policy the College had to determine new aid and billing patterns for each student studying abroad; now, things work pretty much the same, regardless of whether you’re here or there.
“If there were 200 students studying abroad, there were 200 different budgets we had to prepare,” said Reddy. “We used to be dealing with everything crazy and bizarre, and now it’s much simpler.”
But it’s easier for students, too. If anything, students like Jerry, who previously might have had to borrow more money (and risk maxing out loan eligibility) to pay off the study away fee, will be better off under the new policy. It’s equality of opportunity—one of the purposes behind the policy change, according to Sayles
“It’s my hope,” Sayles said, “that this will allow the group from the lower income bracket” to study away.
But what about students who, unlike Jerry, don’t receive a significant amount of financial aid?
Higher-income bracket students, those who get little to no financial aid, will inevitably pay more under the new policy than they would have under the old, according to Vice President of Finance Ron Watts.
Watts is one of the key administrators behind the policy change. Students without any aid, for example, will now pay full price for Oberlin tuition when studying abroad, not full price for the tuition of the study away program, as before. For example, if Jerry received no aid from the school, he would pay $9,000 more ($50,000 – $41,000) under the new policy.
“I don’t think there is much doubt that if you’re a high-paying student, it cost[ed] less to study away” under the old policy, Watts said.
The change, which was more than three years in the making, came from the Board of Trustees and the Office of Finance at least in part as a response to the 2008 economic downturn. And while College administrators lament the fact that some students will indeed pay more under the new policy, many say it’s a funding necessity.
“All institutions are struggling,” Sayles said, and as a result many are making plays to increase their economic efficiency.
For years, the College has lost money due to large fluctuations in what Sayles and Watts call “head count” — the number of students on campus any given semester. In large part because more students take their studies off campus during the spring than the fall, Oberlin’s “head count” lowers by around 100 to 150 students in the latter semester. That means there are fewer students paying for and taking classes, sleeping in rooms and eating at Decafe in the spring, and yet Oberlin’s costs of providing these things to the students still on campus stays constant.
The new policy doesn’t do anything to address the disparity in the number of students on campus, but it does make up for a little bit of the money that was being lost under the old one.
“It removes the fluctuations of [inflow] tuition,” said Watts.
The policy change was probably the least invasive option the College had on the table for raising funds, according Watts.
“What you’re trying to do is not cut services to students,” he said. That means, unlike most other institutions, making no cuts in on-campus assets — specifically, faculty and staff. The cuts needed to come from elsewhere, and the College’s financial decision-making bodies chose to re-evaluate Study Away — probably its least invasive option.
It’s a means of “increase[ing] revenue without negatively affecting a large group of students,” said Watts.
Sayles is quick to note that the new study away policy isn’t exactly a cash cow, though; it’s more like a bit of caulk to fix a leaky faucet. “There’s a misconception that [through this new policy] the College will somehow make money on Study Away,” Sayles said. Instead, “it’s just losing less money.”
Other options that were on the table — establishing a quota on the number of students who can study away each semester, or even hiking up the total price (including room and board and the Student Activity Fee) of attending Oberlin, already $57,025 for 2012-2013 — were deemed too costly to students.
It’s also notable that the new policy is more similar to those of Oberlin’s ‘peer institutions.’ Some, like Vassar College, even charge study abroad students their full costs of tuition and room and board, a heftier price.
Still, that hasn’t prevented some Obies from raising their voices in disapproval.
Caroline Rogers is a junior religion major who spent last fall in Budapest at Central European University, an experience that “readjusted for her the size of the world.” She went under the old, $2,000 fee policy. Upon returning to campus this spring and hearing that the policy had changed, Rogers “got pretty angry; [it] didn’t seem legitimate.”
Rogers took her concern — that the College might be de-emphasizing study away with a price hike — to a recent open Trustees meeting.
“What it comes down to is if you can afford to come to Oberlin you can afford Study Away,” she said. “It’s just that in the end it would be nicer, in the end it would be cheaper, for someone who is on financial aid to say, ‘I at least have a semester where I can breathe a little bit.’ ”
It’s unclear as of yet what, if any, impact the policy change has had on Study Away applicants. That will take time. The preliminary numbers on applicants for a 2012-2013 Academic Leave Of Absence, however, will be available next week.