I am no expert in the study abroad process at Williams, so the below speculation might be completely misinformed, but it seems like there might be a way for Williams to increase its revenue by millions hundreds of thousands of dollars without too many people noticing.

Have all students studying abroad pay Williams tuition directly, and then have Williams pay the study abroad programs.

Details below:

Currently, a typical study abroad student pays the program directly. From the point of view of Williams, it is as if they have withdrawn from the College. (And, to the extent that the student is on significant financial aid, Williams will help her to pay for the program.) The trick is that the vast majority of study away programs are much less expensive than Williams itself. So, rich parents pay less money for a semester away than they do for a semester at Williams.

The College could take advantage of that arbitrage opportunity by charging students the full cost (say, $25,000 for a semester) and then paying for the student’s program (say, $10,000). Presto! The College pockets $15,000. (If the program does not provide room and/or board, then those numbers could be backed out, just as the College does for students living off-campus.) Clicking around the approved study away programs, it sure seems like the vast majority charge less for tuition than Williams.

Think that this is unethical. Think again. Williams already does this (sort of) with Williams-in-Oxford. Any students from the US (well, at least any academically qualified student) can enroll as a visiting student for a year at Oxford. The current costs are approximately $15,000 tuition and $11,000 for average room and board.

Williams is simply doing a group buy on the visiting student tuition for 25 students and then selling room and board at the Williams owned house. Additional costs are the salary of one professor (a 25-1 student faculty ratio) and three British JAs who probably get free room and board and not much else. Williams doesn’t even pick up the airfare to England. They offer a group rate. Yet all those students pay the full Williams tuition. (It is not clear to me if they also pay Williams room/board.)

Who would do such a thing? How about our friends at Swarthmore!

If you wish to receive Swarthmore credit for your foreign study, you must conform to the payment plan provisions of Swarthmore’s Semester/Year Abroad Program, which are:

1. For your semester (or year) abroad, you will pay full Swarthmore tuition, room, and board to Swarthmore.

2. Swarthmore will cover these expenses on your behalf with your program, according to foreign study payment guidelines.

3. If your program does not cover travel, Swarthmore will cover this according to foreign study payment guidelines.

4.Financial aid is normally routinely applied to foreign study done under Swarthmore’s Semester/Year Abroad Program.

Consider their budget (pdf) and note the line about “Foreign Study Program.” I think that the $510,000 number for 2008-2009 is the amount that Swarthmore paid by charging students tuition while paying their foreign programs less money.

Again, there are a lot of messy details involving financial aid, the average family income of students who study abroad, the average cost of the programs they select and so on. But, round numbers, could this change make Williams about $1,000,000 next year (we are bigger than Swarthmore), and every year thereafter? Sure.

Should we do it? I don’t know.

UPDATE: The above description of what is going on at Swarthmore is probably wrong, but I am still unclear on the details. It still seems clear, however, that Williams would be hundreds of thousands of dollars better off if it used the same system as Swarthmore and other schools.

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