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Aid facilitates study abroad

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While many U.S. college students spent their fall weekends cheering for their school's football team, Jonathan Jackson watched his first rugby match, cycled across New Zealand and learned to pronounce "good on ya" — Kiwi-style.

A junior at Rice University, Jackson studied Maori culture last summer and fall at the University of Otago.

As he immersed himself in a foreign culture and earned credits toward his college degree, Jackson ended up ahead on the deal. His financial aid package, which went with him, amounted to more than the cost of the Otago program. Jackson, who lives in Ben Wheeler, Texas, used the surplus for travel and other expenses.

Not every kid is so lucky. But colleges and universities have made international study more attainable by beefing up financial aid, offering summer and between-term sessions and accepting credits from more institutions, some of which charge less. As a result, student participation has jumped almost 20 percent since 2000.

Before your kids dream of springtime in Prague, they should check with their advisers. They could feel dumb if the credits they earn abroad don't transfer and they need an extra semester to graduate. "Integrating the program into your major can be tricky," says John Duncan of StudyAbroad.com, a clearinghouse for international study. Tell your kids to start planning as freshmen.

Kids can study at an institution with which their school has a direct relationship or go through a program run by another U.S. university or organization, such as the Council on International Education Exchange (www.ciee.org). Rice lets students choose among more than 500 study-abroad options; Jackson organized his adventure through the Arcadia University Center for Education Abroad (www.arcadia.edu).

Regarding financial aid, with so many choices, comparing prices is like playing translator in the Tower of Babel. Some schools require that you pay at-home tuition no matter where you go; others have you pay the sponsoring group or foreign school. That can be a big distinction.

Some awards encourage students to travel to certain destinations. Marlena Del Hierro, a University of Texas at Austin student, used a scholarship from the Institute of International Education (www.iie.org) to study in Tanzania. The institute also administers the Freeman-Asia Award, which pays up to $7,000 to students who head to the Far East.

In addition, consider the costs of transportation, health insurance, books and orientation, which some programs cover and others don't. You'll spend more to study in big cities, in developed countries and at private universities.