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The study abroad ‘free movers’ saving $20,000

‘Free movers’ can save up to $20,000 in tuition costs by organising study abroad independently rather than using traditional exchange programs, according to stakeholders.  
April 12 2024
5 Min Read

Independent students known as ‘free movers’ can save up to $20,000 in tuition costs by organising study abroad programs independently or with third party providers rather than using traditional university and bilateral exchange programs, according to stakeholders.  

A ‘free mover’ refers to a student who chooses to study abroad outside of an official university partnership or bilateral exchange program such as Erasmus, Fulbright or Nordplus, which can be highly competitive and inaccessible due to high costs, said providers.  

“We wanted to make ‘free mover’ mobility – which used to be the most challenging and most unpredictable way to go abroad – the easiest and most secure way to do it, even better than through a home university’s own network where you are competing with so many students,” said Harri Suominen, founder of Asia Exchange study abroad provider.  

Since 2007, Asia Exchange has facilitated short-term study abroad experiences for over 10,000 ‘free movers’ from 115 different countries, making it the most international study abroad provider globally. 

South Korea, Bali and Indonesia are the most popular study destinations in Asia Exchange’s Asian portfolio. With the help of its sister brand, Beyond Abroad, students can also choose destinations outside of Asia including Costa Rica and Cuba.  

Acting as the go-between for universities and prospective short-term students, Asia Exchange negotiates tuition fees, processes applications and accepts students on behalf of the host university, significantly reducing waiting times for students and workloads for universities.  

‘Free movers’ generally study abroad for one semester and are waived from their home tuition fees while taking credit-bearing courses overseas.  

On average per semester, European students travelling with Asia Exchange pay €2,500 and those from the US pay approximately $4,200.  

In the US, where home tuition fees can reach $25,000 per semester, students can save up to $20,000 on tuition plus significant savings on living expenses, according to Suominen.  

Two UC Berkeley ‘free movers’ – the first from their institution to study abroad in Bali – said that their tuition costs were 10% of what they would pay in the US, and that they average cost of a meal at a restaurant was $4.  

“I absolutely wouldn’t have been able to go abroad without it because it’s way more affordable”

Approximately one third of US students studying abroad do so as a ‘free-mover,’ though the term is less commonly used than in Europe.  

“For us in the US it’s expensive just to attend school in our own country so most people can’t even imagine going abroad,” said Maya Whitted, a ‘free mover’ studying at Hankuk University in Seoul. 

“I absolutely wouldn’t have been able to go abroad without it because it’s way more affordable and I get to go and explore Korea and do a lot of things because I have the extra money to do it.

“We have a study abroad program at my home university of Georgia State, but Korea is one of the most popular countries that students are picking so it would’ve been a lot harder for me to come here,” added Whitted. 

A target of sending one million US college students abroad annually by 2010 failed, with only 1% of all US college students doing so in the 2021/22 academic year – the equivalent of almost 188,000.

Stakeholders have reiterated that funding is the biggest barrier to encouraging more US students to go overseas.

Roughly 80% of universities around the world that have their own network of study abroad partners are positive about ‘free mover’ mobility as an alternative option, according to Joonas Salo, managing director at Asia Exchange.  

“It might be that [the home university] has a quota of three students and there are 10 applying, so the ones who don’t qualify for a quota of three can go through us as a much easier way of getting all the services,” said Suominen. 

Over the past two years, 36 students from ISEN engineering school in the west of France have studied abroad with Asia Exchange, the majority attending universities in Malaysia and Thailand.   

ISEN does not offer its own study abroad program, so Asia Exchange advises the students on immigration issues, which allows the school more time to concentrate on other mobility issues, according to Susan Gibbs, head of international relations at ISEN engineering school.

“Students benefit from a different and often more autonomous way of studying … they feel more comfortable knowing that there is help at hand via WhatsApp, regular information meetings and a reference for each destination,” added Gibbs.  

Rather than ‘free mover’ mobility threatening universities’ existing exchange programs, “some people are just happy if it makes studying more accessible and if they can encourage their students to see the world without the cost being the barrier”, said Suominen. 

He noted that the sending universities also benefit from having Asia Exchange’s portfolio available to their students free of charge, who can choose to go to a wide variety of destinations without the university having to sign multiple new agreements.

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