The value and challenge of study away

Office of the President

Macalester College
208 Weyerhaeuser Hall
62 Macalester Street
St. Paul, MN 55105-1899
651-696-6207
651-696-6500 fax

This "Household Words" column appeared in the Spring 2006 issue of Macalester Today.

By Brian Rosenberg

Macalester's pledge to educate global citizens and leaders rests in part on our commitment to encouraging as many students as possible to spend some time studying off campus. Work in classrooms, laboratories and studios lies at the heart of our enterprise, but that work is deeply enriched when students can extend their learning experiences into places and cultures with which they were previously unfamiliar. For many students--I am certain for many alumni--study away opportunities become among the most meaningful and memorable parts of their Macalester education.

For this reason the college attempts to provide exciting and intellectually substantive study away opportunities for as many students as possible. During the 2004-2005 academic year, 213 students studied away for a semester, mostly during their junior year; in 2005-2006 the number has grown to 250, easily the highest on record. In the most recent listings from the Institute for International Education, Macalester ranked 15th nationally among liberal arts colleges in the percentage of students studying abroad for at least a semester. Unlike many other colleges that concentrate their study abroad programs in only a few locations, we are this year sending students to programs in 48 different countries. Faculty such as Andy Overman and Joe Rife in Classics and Duchess Harris in American Studies also take students abroad for shorter-term but intense study abroad experiences in countries including Israel, Turkey, Greece and France.

We are determined at least to maintain and ideally to increase these off-campus opportunities for our students. At the same time, we acknowledge that our ability to provide such opportunities is not unlimited and that, under certain circumstances, we have been forced to cap the number of students studying away in a particular year or semester. Given the college's commitment to global citizenship, it is reasonable under these circumstances to ask any number of questions: Why limit the number of students who can have these powerful experiences? Why not permit all academically qualified students to study away or even require that all students study away during their time at Macalester? Why should something so obviously good not be, for our students, universally available?

There are many ways to answer these very good questions. For students participating in certain activities or pursuing certain majors, a study away requirement would be inconvenient and even highly problematic: this is especially true of students in some science disciplines or following pre-professional tracks. To take one hypothetical but plausible example, a pre-medical student on the women's soccer team might not want to miss the season in the fall of her junior year and might need to take a particular biology or chemistry course in the spring. Such difficulties are not insuperable but they are real and need to be borne in mind. The truth is that the very few colleges with off-campus study requirements tend to depend heavily on excursions lasting two or three weeks, whereas at Macalester we emphasize the benefits of participation in semester-long programs.

Very large numbers of students studying away, moreover, means fewer students on campus and some resultant loss to the local community. The record number of students studying away this spring has led to the cancellation of a number of courses and to an unusual number of vacant rooms in the residence halls, each of which has some negative impact on the students living and studying in Saint Paul. If one imagines the simultaneous departure from campus for a semester of the entire junior class, the challenges posed by universal study away become apparent.

Probably most challenging of all--doesn't this seem always to be the case?--are the financial issues. Because Macalester allows students studying away to retain their financial aid, and because Macalester forwards most or all of each student's tuition to the study away program in which she or he is participating, the cost of providing this educational opportunity is enormous. It costs the college on average about $12,000 for each student who studies away for a semester. During the current year, the expenditure for study away will be nearly $3 million; this is more than one-fifth of what we will spend on all faculty salaries combined and far more than we will spend on maintaining all our facilities and buying and maintaining all our computers. If we were to allow study away costs to grow unchecked, we would be forced to make cuts elsewhere in personnel or programs. Try as I might, I cannot make the math come out any other way.

So we will continue to promote the virtues of studying away and to support very large numbers of students who do so; we will look for additional resources to fund study away, in part through our upcoming capital campaign; and we will carry on with the endless balancing act that comprises the management of Macalester. The challenge of being a place doing so many worthy things is that we want to do all of them more often, for more students, and to better effect. As aspirations go, this isn't bad.