Studying abroad is a life-changing experience. Whether you’re thinking about signing up for a semester or year abroad with a study abroad program, or considering enrolling directly in a local university in your country of choice, here are 5 things you need to know before you make your decision.

1)    Your tuition dollars pay for someone else’s study-abroad experience.

Because you’re paying American university tuition through the nose – $30,000 or $40,000 – you may believe that this money actually goes to funding your study abroad experience when you’re abroad. If it did, study abroad programs would be in great shape. It doesn’t. Only about 30% of your tuition is allocated to your study abroad program, which pays for your entire academic and cultural experience.

Furthermore, foreign universities often have very low enrollment fees, meaning that the local university receives very little, if any, money from your study abroad program, even if you take classes there.  Study abroad programs run by American universities directly (Columbia-Penn, Middlebury, Smith College, etc.) usually operate on the basis of exchange, meaning most of your tuition dollars go to pay for a student from your host country to study on your home campus. And even then, it’s not an even exchange. At about 70 students per year, the Columbia-Penn program is one of the largest in Paris, with exchanges with 4 Parisian universities. They take fewer than 10 French students in exchange programs every year, and then severely limit these students’ access to on-campus classes and resources.

What to do about it: If you feel you really need the support of a study abroad program and advisor to go abroad, there’s not much you can do about it. Likewise, if your school won’t accept transfer credits from foreign universities, you aren’t going to get around their policy. Otherwise, you always have the option of enrolling directly in a foreign university for a year of your undergraduate degree, or of doing a master’s degree abroad after graduation. Even taking into account the cost of language acclimation classes (around €5,000 at the Sorbonne in Paris), university tuition is much cheaper worldwide than in the U.S. (about €400 in France).

You’ll obviously need some money for rent and other expenses, but you’ll still save thousands of dollars. One caveat: you probably won’t be able to use federal student loans towards an independent study abroad experience, and you won’t be able to defer student loan payments while enrolled in a non-qualified school (there are some abroad, but not all).

2)    Your program fees don’t pay for your activities.

I studied abroad at the very beginning of the recession, when the Lehman Brothers were still in business and nobody knew what a sub-prime mortgage was. Not only did our program fee cover one week long trip per semester to another French town and a bunch of program-wide parties and workshops (think champagne tasting trip and trivia night with a bunch of French students), we also had an allowance for cultural activities. Our program fee was used to pay for these trips and to reimburse up to €50 per semester of museum tickets.

Sadly, those champagne tastings are a thing of the past. With stripped budgets and reduced staff, most study abroad programs now put those funds towards other things, like photocopying your student ID card application and arrival packet, and you’re left to fend for yourself.

What to do about it: You still have to pay your program’s fee no matter what, but there are plenty of ways to have great experiences without breaking the bank. In the European Union, most museums are free for students under 25, regardless of whether you’re an E.U. national. You just have to show your ID from a European university with your birthday to qualify for free or reduced admission.

Another way to have inexpensive cultural experiences is to join a student group at the local university. While it may be hard to get information on some of these groups, local students will be excited to have exchange students among them, and will make an effort to include you in their group’s activities. Your study abroad program’s agreement with local universities should cover your ability to join student organizations.

3)    Unless you make a concerted effort, you’ll mostly speak English while abroad.

Even though I spent three summers at the Middlebury College French School, where the Language Pledge required me to speak French full-time with my American classmates, I still think it’s weird to speak anything other than English with other Americans. No matter how good your intentions are, you’ll probably end up speaking mostly English while you’re abroad, by virtue of the fact that you’ll be hanging out mostly with your American classmates.

Even if you do make an effort to speak the local language with your fellow Anglophones, practicing a foreign language with other people who speak poorly isn’t going to help you out that much.

What to do about it: In order to really advance, you need to make friends who are native speakers of the local language. Join a gym, go to a yoga class, get a job or an internship, or participate in a student group with local students. In other words, make friends and interact as much as you can with locals. While it can be intimidating, you’ll be glad you did, and the more you solidify your language skills while abroad, the longer it will take to lose them later. The best way to learn, of course, is to have a boy/girlfriend who speaks the language. A friend who studied in Turkey told me there’s a proverb in Turkish, “You can’t learn a new tongue unless two tongues touch.”

4)    You’ll have few opportunities to make friends with native students.

So much of your life in a foreign country will be centered around your study abroad program. They’ll set your class schedule, give you tutoring sessions, organize activities, and even find you a job or an internship if you want one. If you take classes in a local university at all, you won’t spend nearly as much time on campus as the other students, and you’ll rarely get the opportunity to talk to other students in class. Aside from getting there a few minutes early and striking up a conversation with someone who looks interesting, it can be difficult to forge real connections with people you see once a week for two hours.

What to do about it: If there’s a group project for your class, you’re in luck, as this is one of the easiest ways to make friends with your classmates. If not, you’ll have to work a little harder. After class, ask your neighbor about something the professor said, propose studying together for an upcoming test, or strike up a conversation about what activities she does. If it sounds interesting, ask to join. Again, the more time you spend getting involved with local student groups, the better your study abroad experience will be overall.

5)    A host family isn’t usually a family.

Most study abroad programs require students to live in a host family, convinced that being surrounded by native speakers of the country’s language will enhance the student’s linguistic and cultural experience. In many cases, nothing could be further from the truth.

While study abroad professionals regard the host family as an ideal of cultural sharing, the reality is that most families see you as a source of income. They can rent out an empty room in their house, usually without declaring the income on their taxes, and make you pay for a few meals per week. By partnering with a university, they can be assured that the person they get will treat their home well and be respectful, and if not, the university will compensate them.

As a result, most host families are not traditional sorts of families. Many are older, retired couples who need the income, some are single parents with one child and an extra bedroom, and some are American expats who want to help out students from their former school. Unless the family wants you to babysit or teach their kids English, they’ll generally be too involved in their own lives to worry much about yours. While some students have good experiences, many are disappointed that they don’t make deeper connections with their host families.

What to do about it: If you’re required to live with a host family, ask if you can make requests. If you like hanging out with adults, you may request a childless couple or a single man or woman. If you like kids, and would like being asked to babysit or teach English occasionally, you may ask for a family with small children if any are available. Another option is to ask if there are any couples with college-age children who don’t live at home. In this case, you may be able to make friends and get age-appropriate advice on living in the city when the children come home.

A better option, if you’re not required to live in a host family, is to live in a dorm with local students. Many European cities have student residences with cheap rent, and you can make friends easily if your dorm sponsors activities or has a student restaurant. In Paris, there are many foyers, some religious or culturally oriented, as well as the Cité Universitaire, which houses students from all over the world.

Bio:

Allison Lounes, of Paris Unraveled (www.parisunraveled.com) is a graduate of Columbia University and the Middlebury College French School. After studying abroad with Columbia University Programs in Paris during the 2007-2008 academic year, she returned to France in September 2009 to complete a Master 2 degree in Comparative Literature at the Université de Paris VII – Denis Diderot, where she studied Algerian libertine folktales. She is the author of three books on studying abroad in Paris, and lives in France with her husband and her cat.