A Right, Not a Privilege: A Gift Breaks Down Barriers to International Travel for Undergraduates

Back in March, when looking at former politician and diplomat Frank Guarini's $10 million give to boost Dartmouth's study abroad program, I mentioned the most obvious reason why many students stay put in the states: cost. College isn't cheap. Students and parents don't want to go deeper into debt by adding international study to the tab. 

News out of a Waterville, Maine's Colby College points to an elegant solution to this problem.

Andrew Davis, an investor who graduated from Colby in 1985, will allocate $25 million to fund a program ensuring that every student, regardless of income, can study abroad. 

According to the Boston Globe, Colby will be the first liberal arts college in the country to eliminate the barriers to international travel and ensure that every student gains overseas experience during their undergraduate years. This experience includes work and research opportunities, study abroad programs and internships.

Davis, of course, isn't the first funder to embrace international study and travel. Recently profiled funders in this space include the Starr Foundation and the Speedwell Foundation, which supports up to 30 study-abroad scholarships each year for high school students in central Pennsylvania.

That said, Davis' gift provides evidence that more private donors are joining the fray. In addition to Guarini's gift, private equity billionaire Stephen Schwarzman created a major scholarship fund a few years ago to bring U.S. and other students to China for a year of graduate study. 

I attribute this burgeoning interest to at least two factors. First, business-savvy alumni donors are concerning themselves with how to develop globally minded business leaders. In addition, donors are worried about where the world is heading and want to make sure that the next generation has leaders who can cope with a changing geopolitical landscape.

There's much work to be done. Nationally, only 10 percent of American undergraduates, including community college students, study overseas by the time they graduate, according to the Institute of International Education. The figures are far more promising at Colby, where 70 percent of Colby students study abroad.

That said, Davis' gift underscores the fact that even students at an elite liberal arts school face barriers. Again, consider cost: Full-time undergraduate students at Colby College paid $49,120 in tuition and fees for the 2015-2016 school year, prior to adjustments for financial need. According to the school, the program will pay for airfare, housing, meals and stipends to allow students to take unpaid internships, a luxury "often available only to higher-income families."

Then there are the non-financial obstacles at play. Sure, studying abroad is an enriching experience, but most donors argue it should be a means to an end. It should bolster a student's resume or help to land a job post-graduation. Some students may be able to afford that flight to Heathrow, but then what? 

David A. Greene, the private school’s president, said the goal is to make international education accessible to students whose parents may not have "connections to internships in foreign corporations." And so students will work with college staff in a new center, called DavisConnects, to develop international programs that bolster their particular area of study.

Those plans could range from working on an agricultural project in Ghana to studying literature in Russia, and will make Colby students more attractive to employers and graduate schools, Greene said.

Not coincidentally, DavisConnects reminds me of the Frank J. Guarini Institute for International Education, which offers more than 40 off-campus venues through Dartmouth Language Study Abroad, Dartmouth Foreign Study Programs, and Dartmouth Exchange Program.

Indeed, Davis' gift bears many similarities to some of these programs. Each donor has an end goal in mind, whether a solid, post-graduation job or the "soft" benefits that come with sightseeing in European capitals.

But there are some subtle differences between these gifts, as well. First off, Davis' $25 million removes financial barriers for all students. Secondly—and I'd argue more importantly—the gift isn't solely focused on future global business leaders or graduate students. It focuses on liberal arts students. This is telling, given all the money flowing across a STEM-crazed higher education space.

According to the Globe, Greene described the program as part of an effort to defend the liberal arts against critics—including many parents—who question its value in an era when many are focused on preparing students for jobs, particularly in technical and engineering fields.

Greene isn't alone. Last year, after South Carolina's Furman University received a $47 million gift from the Duke Endowment, the school took out a full-page ad in the New York Times touting the "Furman Advantage," a program combining a liberal arts education with "immersive experiences outside the classroom, creating a personalized pathway." 

Clearly directed toward parents, the ad read like a PowerPoint presentation spelling out how their hard-earned money will send Billy on a well-paying career path rooted in the liberal arts.

For now, Colby will do without the full-page ad. By removing obstacles to international travel, Davis' gift suggests that such experiences—to quote our friends in politics—should be a right and not a privilege. Without these barriers, students, in theory, have no excuse for not hopping on a plane.