Study Abroad - Budget Study Abroad
Havana, cuba - tourist with travel guide book on Plaza de Armas, Havana, Cuba. Young woman traveler smiling happy.


To “Study Abroad” or . . .  to Study Abroad, that is the question.

I actually did spend an academic year in Germany on my own and can confidently assert that I learned more German than most U.S. students that I have met who studied abroad via traditional study abroad programs. From comparisons that I was able to make, I had more in-depth contact with Germans and learned more about German thought and culture than most U.S. students. I actually paid less than $5,000 in tuition and housing costs for the entire year I was there (we listed the prices you would pay if you did the same thing at the end of 2011 or in the 2012 academic year).

The question is, did I “study abroad?”

Let’s look at what I did and what was or wasn’t part of my experience abroad and some of the benefits of what I did:

  • I enrolled directly in a German school abroad – a super inexpensive one – and a great one.
  • I had to arrange my own housing – a pain in the backside, but a great experience.
  • I lived with international and (mostly) German students.
  • I had a lot friends from all over the world and a lot of contact with foreign students in general.
  • My 3 trimester-long courses encompassed a total of approximately 660 class-hours of German (Phew! Did I learn a lot!)
  • I passed the German language exam required for entry into a German university – where I then enrolled as a Visiting Student.
  • In subsequent years, I was hired at 2 different companies because I was fluent in German.
  • Being a fluent speaker of German continues to enhance both my professional and personal life.

What was not a part of my experience in Germany:

  • No pre-departure orientation.
  • No pre-paid, pre-organized excursions (though the German school did organize some, and I hopped on trains to Italy and Switzerland about 5 times while I was studying abroad in Germany).
  • No pre-arranged housing.
  • No in-place process for obtaining credits (not my concern – first and foremost, I wanted fluency in German).
  • No financial aid (the entire year was so inexpensive that I didn’t need it).
  • No U.S. university or study abroad company folks involved.

To add a little perspective as to why one might choose to study abroad independently in Germany, consider some of the costs for traditional study abroad programs in the same German city:

Study abroad company 1:  
$32,665 (academic year tuition, housing, meals while classes are in session, health insurance)

University 1:  

$16,500 (1 semester tuition, approx.),

$32,940 (academic year – tuition only)

US university 2:

$6,300 (in-state students, one semester tuition, housing)

$13,819 (out-of-state/non-resident students)

US university 3:  $8240.5

(one semester, tuition, study abroad fee, housing)

US university 4:  $17,701

(tuition, admin fees, housing – 10 week program)

The traditional study abroad programs sampled above differed in certain respects from my study abroad experience. In some cases, a faculty member of the home university might accompany his/her U.S. students to German and teach a course. In other cases, special courses might be available (courses taught in English, for example). There are differences in study abroad options and the value of those differences to each individual student will depend on his or her goals, needs, and wants.

Back to the question “Is independent study abroad…study abroad?”

In the U.S., “study abroad ” is, it seems to us, a very defined concept that is inextricably linked to U.S. universities and organizations that administer study abroad programs for U.S. students. “Study abroad ” involves pre-departure meetings, pre-approval of classes, travel in groups, on-site representatives, accompanying faculty, and a host of other variables.

What if one enrolls directly in a German language school or German university abroad, just as other international students do? Would one learn German? Would one acquire cultural understanding and personal growth? Students from all over the world do just that.

An important question for U.S. students is “what if you did not receive a single academic credit for studying abroad on your own?”

Would the experience be worth it if you acquired fluency in a foreign language, developed a heightened sense of cultural understanding and reaped all the benefits of personal growth and greater independence — while at the same time saving $5,000 or $10,000 or $25,000 dollars?

Cost savings aside, if your defined goal is to acquire foreign language fluency, cultural awareness, personal growth and greater independence, then independent study abroad is study abroad. And would it be worth it to study abroad independently? That decision is yours. But for me, it was 300% worth the experience and this answer is absolutely, totally yes!


You have the resources to figure it out – if you’re reading this post you are probably studying at a college or university. So, you might have already done courses in Logical Thinking, an economics course or two … like microeconomics, perhaps a course in marketing, etc. You may have also already developed some snazzy research skills and the ability to interpret all helps.

Think: Clep Exams, Standardized Tests, Independent Learning Contracts, Placement exams, and the like.