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Dollar's woes aren't keeping private-college students from study abroad

There are more private college students in Minnesota studying abroad than practically anywhere else in the country.

That's one conclusion that can be reached from the latest numbers from the Institute of International Education, the arbiter of colleges' study-abroad success. You can crunch them a gazillion ways — the institute certainly has — and find all sorts of interesting stats.

St. Olaf, for example, placed second on the nationwide Top 10 list of baccalaureate institutions (that is, colleges that primarily award only undergraduate degrees), ranked by the total number of students — not percentage — who studied abroad during the 2005-06 school year.

Three other Minnesota private colleges made the list, too: St. John's/St. Benedict's (No. 4), Gustavus (No. 8) and Concordia at Moorhead (No. 9). Other private colleges in the state fared well, too, including Hamline and St. Thomas, who offer master's degrees and were ranked in a different category.

Weak dollar starting to take its toll
Of course, none of this is breaking news — Minnesota private colleges have wrecked a few curves before in the institute's grade books. So here's one more number to put things in perspective: 68.

That's the number of euros you'll get back (give or take a few, of course, depending on the day's exchange rate) for every hundred bucks you bring to Europe, a perennially popular location for study-abroad programs.

The almighty dollar is pretty sickly these days no matter where you travel, and although it hasn't translated into a significant increase in study-abroad costs for students, it's made life difficult for directors of study-abroad programs at Minnesota private colleges.

Gustavus' international education department, for instance, absorbed last-minute increases for upcoming January trips by cutting its internal budget, said Patrick Quade, interim director of international education.

"(The dollar's decline) is a consideration, and anyone who says it isn't isn't playing with a full deck," Quade said. "No matter where we're going, the dollar buys less."

The same thing's happening at St. Olaf, said Eric Lund, the college's director of international education. In its case, it may mean cutting back on some activities planned for the January trips.

Colleges typically announce the cost of short-term programs (like the January trips) about 10 months out to give students plenty of time to make informed decisions, rather than impulsively sign up. But that option is beginning to vanish, the directors said, because the dollar has been so volatile that it's now nearly impossible to predict how much a trip is going to cost.

Directors of study-abroad programs say that luckily, the increases haven't been so steep that they've had to ask students for more money at the last minute. But that could change.

Numbers still rising for students studying abroad
Still, the number of students studying abroad continues to rise. Nationwide, it's at a record level and up more than 150 percent over the past 10 years, according to the institute. Quade and Lund said there's no evidence that students are either opting for cheaper programs or deciding to stay home.

Matt Glass, for one, hasn't.

Glass, who graduated from Hamline this spring, spent two weeks in a study-abroad program in Europe as a sophomore and his entire junior year in Trier, Germany, studying math and philosophy. Now he's living in Vienna as part of a Fulbright scholarship.

Glass left the country to improve his language and research skills for graduate school, but he also wanted to experience something different — something he said he couldn't tie to money, regardless of expense. For the record, he paid a few thousand for the two weeks and about $25,000 for the year abroad (the cost of his annual tuition plus a plane ticket) and funded it through savings and a little help from relatives.

"The only time you can really confront other cultures, and subsequently learn about them and from them, is by throwing yourself into the culture completely," he said.

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