The Price of Inspiration

Last week I received a letter from an anguished parent, distressed about the study-abroad fees levied on U.Va. students attending non-U.Va. programs. (There are fewer fees for students participating U.Va.-sponsored programs abroad.) To study in Freiburg, Germany this spring, his daughter had to pay two administrative fees that added up to $550 plus an application fee of $90; to study art in Italy this summer, she was asked to pay yet another $400 in administrative fees, plus another application fee of $90. The total came to $1,130—not a trivial sum, especially coming on the heels of other hidden costs associated with transplanting a child to Europe.

I should know. My son is about to commence his study abroad in Berlin, and I am stunned by the dizzying array of costs associated with ensconcing a child in a foreign country. After paying various fees to the University of Chicago where he is a student, and the extra cost of language school and home-stay, we also laid out cash for his survival fees—a new cell phone for local use; the chargers he needs (and always forgets) for the many gadgets he can’t live without; new subway cards and rail tickets; a new pair of Birkenstocks; books, dictionaries, and other supplies. It is as if you pay to start college all over again. Then there are the great museums and concerts that beckoned him to Berlin in the first place, and that must be appreciated; the cafes and beer gardens; the choucroute, flammekuche, and endless sausages to choose from; and of course, all the cities to be explored—each of which costs money, at a time when the dollar remains weak against the euro.

The charge that the anguished parent found most galling was the $400 administrative fee, recently mandated by the Board of Visitors, which was required for his daughter to take her studio art class in Italy. I wrote to explain that the $400 covers the administrative costs of approving non-U.Va. programs and credit transfer, financial aid packaging/repackaging, advising services, pre-departure orientations and emergency response to student needs while abroad—and then I sheepishly added that at $400, we were a bargain, compared to University of North Carolina’s $650. I know that this was no consolation to him.

In truth, however, the “cost” of education, either on Grounds or abroad, cannot be computed. Unlike a for-profit business, we run a money-losing operation. U.Va., like other excellent colleges and universities, provides a cornucopia of services that cost far more than what it charges, and it subsidizes the loss through its state appropriations, endowments and funds from gifts and bequests from alumni and other private donors. Even if U.Va. charged its students the full cost of their education, the fact remains that there is really no meaningful way to express in monetary terms the benefits of learning.

On the third day my son arrived in Berlin, he paid 49 euro for a bus trip to Dresden. His guide who, like so many Berliners, said he was “completing [his] dissertation,” took him to Frauenkirche, the domed church which had graced Dresden’s skyline for two centuries before it collapsed after the infamous firebombing of the city. “There were three thousand bombers covering the sky on that day in February 1945, and the people ran out to the street to find out what this was all about,” the guide said, as he squinted his eyes against the brilliant August sun and let out a long sigh. “Dresden has never been a city prepared for tragedy.” But it is prepared for rebirth: after the reunification, a grass-roots movement arose to painstakingly rebuild Frauenkirche, and to make whole the rubble and fragments of a city as stunningly beautiful as it was defenseless. It was a big lesson in just one a day, for 49 euros. Priceless.

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