With the recent tumult in the U.S. economy and the value of the U.S. dollar at its lowest levels in decades, a growing number of American college students have begun to change their study abroad plans and look beyond traditional European destinations.
Offering better exchange rates and cheaper travel costs, countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America have grown in popularity among University students during recent years.
Between academic years 2005-2006 and 2006-2007, the most recent years for which statistics were available, the number of University students traveling to China jumped from 53 to 135, from 26 to 39 in South Africa, and from 12 to 39 in Brazil, according to the Office of International Programs.
Indicative of a larger national trend, the shift on campus represents a growing interest in countries that have traditionally been less traveled by American college students.
According to data from the Institute of International Education, students traveling to “non-traditional destinations,” increased dramatically in 2007. The IIE reported a 31-percent increase among students traveling to the Middle East, a 26-percent increase to Asia, a 19-percent increase to Africa and a 14-percent increase to Latin America.
Jessica Angelson, public affairs manager for IIE, said part of that shift could be attributed to the increased costs associated with traveling to more traditional European locations.
“Because the value of the dollar has been unreliable, students in addition to, I think, being savvier about their budget when they go to more traditional locations, are seeing that their dollar goes a lot further in these non-traditional destinations,” Angelson said.
Nicole LeBlanc, assistant director of the OIP, said the unfolding financial crises in the U.S. and around the world have added another dimension to the mix of considerations that come with traveling abroad.
“With the current U.S. economic difficulties, concern over finances at home is certainly contributing to student worries,” LeBlanc wrote in an e-mail interview.
Still, even in the wake of the recent domestic economic troubles, LeBlanc said place like Spain, France and Great Britain have remained popular destinations for students on campus.
“The specific exchange rate is not necessarily the main concern we address with students,” LeBlanc said. “Some of their specific concerns often focus on the cost of the entire experience, not just the exchange rate (which fluctuates).”
For LSA senior Jamie O’Malley, who traveled to South Africa last winter — where $1 buys 9.22 rand, the country’s national currency — the affordability of the trip helped her make the decision to study abroad, she said.
“(Cost) was a major factor that made it easier for me to go there,” O’Malley said. “The cost of living is lower compared to the U.S. and especially low compared to Europe.”
Paying $350 a month for housing and $8 for an upscale dinner, O’Malley said her day-to-day expenses during the five months she spent abroad were minimal.
For LSA senior Kendra Williams, who traveled to London during her semester abroad in Russia last winter, the nearly two-to-one value of the pound to the dollar left her looking to save money wherever possible.
“I can safely say that I’m not going back to England anytime soon unless someone’s paying me by the pound,” Williams said. “That was probably the worst city I was in during my travels.”
During her four-day trip to London, Williams said her expenses ran upwards of $600 — a figure she thought was half that much until she accounted for the exchange rate.
“It’s really mind boggling how the exchange rate contorts the price of things,” Williams said.
According to Economics Prof. Alan Deardorff, the disparity in exchange rates reflects the price of goods and the value of assets like stocks and bonds internationally relative to their value in the U.S.
Though Deardorff said those factors explain the dollar’s weakness relative to the currency of developed nations, he added that it would be virtually impossible for students to predict exchange rates for future trips abroad.
“You can look at what it’s done, but as far as predicting the future, it’s just like the stock market,” Deardorff said. “There’s so many players in this market all the time betting on its rising and falling, so the price right now is probably the market’s best guess of what it’s going to be in the future.”