Study Abroad Program Showdown: Direct Enrollment vs. Affiliate Program

by Suzanne Bhagan

Studying abroad is as simple as hopping on a plane and plunking yourself into a foreign university, right? WRONG. If you decide to head overseas, there are many study abroad programs to choose from. So, how do you choose the right one? Well, that all depends on what you’d like to achieve during your time in a foreign country.

Let’s take a look at two of the main options: study abroad direct enrollment and affiliate programs (or third party provider programs). How can you find out which one’s the best fit for you? Although they may sound confusing now, they won’t after we break them down a bit:

Direct Enrollment: The Pros & Cons

Direct enrollment” is when you enroll directly in a university abroad as an exchange student. For example, if you want to study at Oxford University in England, you need to apply and pay fees directly to the school. It’s usually easier to enroll at universities abroad that follow a curriculum that’s similar to your home college and use the same language of instruction.

The Pros

Hit the ground running.

If you’re the adventurous type with clear goals about what you want to achieve from your study abroad experience, direct enrollment might be a good fit. Who wants to sit through boring orientation programs in stuffy hotels or share digs with students from your home country? Take charge of your life abroad from day one with this option. Sign up for classes you want to take. With direct enrollment, you also get to study together with local and international students in the host country and access all the university’s courses. Want to learn about the cultural revolution in China from professors who lecture in Mandarin at Peking University? With direct enrollment, you certainly can!

Wallet filled with money

Direct program enrollment tends to be cheaper.

It’s more affordable (your wallet will thank you)!

Did you always dream of studying the unique wildlife and environment of the Amazonian rainforest? With direct enrollment, your dream just got more affordable! Although program providers can save you time and stress by sorting out the small (but not so small) logistics and other stuff, why pay them a lot of money when you can DIY it? Another possibility with third party providers are hidden costs that are not included in the program fee AKA more out of pocket costs. Who’s got time for that?

Direct enrollment is sometimes less expensive because you pay the university directly rather than paying more expensive home tuition fees and third party provider fees. In some countries, like Germany, it’s ridiculously affordable to go to college, so if you pay the same fees as local students, you can end up saving more moolah to hit up Oktoberfest while you’re there!

The Cons

It’s not for the faint hearted.

If it’s your first time abroad and you’re not too confident with the local language, maybe you should skip direct enrollment. This study abroad option caters for more independent, mature students who are comfortable making arrangements on their own (since it doesn’t offer a lot of student support). If you’re caught in a pickle, you’re basically on your own. Unlike affiliate programs, there’s no middle man and you have to do all the leg work, like getting a place to live and finding out whether your academic credit is transferable. Why slog through those details when you could be spending your free time settling in and making friends?

You need to have advanced language proficiency.

With this option, your university professors will expect you to be fluent in the language of instruction in order to keep up with the course load and to be on the same level as your classmates. Sorry, but you won’t get any special treatment just because you’re a foreigner still feeling out the language.

Notepad, phone, and pen on a desk

Research the pro’s and con’s of each program option.

You have to make a long-term commitment.

As a directly enrolled student, you may have to commit to semester or year-long courses. If you don’t have that much time for studying abroad, then you may want to reconsider this option. Also, there may be differences between your home university and your host university’s academic calendars, so scheduling course registration could become your worst nightmare. For example, unlike Western-style universities, many colleges in Asia don’t start in September, but in late March or early April.

Affiliate Programs: The Pros & Cons

An affiliate program is when you study abroad through a third party provider. You pay the provider directly for study abroad placement and other services. Some of these programs also offer tailor-made classes in your native language that cover topics you’re interested in.

The Pros

You’ll have an incredible support system.

Affiliate or third party provider programs usually provide onsite staff who are a great source of advice, support, and information for students abroad. Because they’re usually fluent in English and the host country’s language, they are experts on understanding its culture and can help you communicate with your professor, landlord, or other people on and off campus – if you’ll even have to communicate with those people at all.

They have a lot of contacts in the host country and can be a major lifesaver when you really don’t know the language and need to get stuff done fast, like sorting out your student visa, arranging your accommodation, setting up your bank account, or registering for courses. Get to know your study abroad program leaders well. Tap them for insider tips about the best street food joint or the underground music scene in your city. 

Pages of a book fanning out

Research all of your options properly before signing up!

You can still get financial aid.

If you choose to register with an affiliate program in your home country that is pre-approved by your university, you may still be able to access financial aid programs from back home while overseas. You’ll usually be able to earn transferable college credits so your time abroad isn’t a total time waster.

Learning about your host country’s culture is a cinch.

Some affiliate program providers make the cultural experience so easy for their study abroad students. If you don’t have much time but still want the foreign university experience, third party program providers offer many opportunities to maximize cultural immersion during short term study abroad programs. You don’t have to go through the trouble of sorting out language learning courses or cultural trips. They do it all for you. All you have to do is show up!

The Cons

You may not leave your comfort zone.

If you’re trying to immerse yourself in a foreign culture abroad, affiliate programs may not be the best option since you may be stuck with a lot of students from your home university or native country. Although this may seem cool in the beginning, you may get too comfortable and not get out and meet the locals or learn the local language.

You may miss out on your own adventures.

Nothing’s wrong with letting your program provider plan all your adventures, per se, but what about if you want to do or see something that’s not on their list? For instance, you’re studying abroad in Paris and your affiliate provider plans a routine trip to the Louvre, but all you really want to do is check out the free street art in and around the city of love. If you’re on your own, this is a cinch, but with a larger group, not so much. And let’s face it. Organized fun isn’t much of a hoot if you’re the more adventurous solo-traveler type.

Two bikers in the desert in Arizona

If you sign up through an affiliate program, be sure to leave room for adventure.

It’s may not be as academically challenging.

In some cases, affiliate programs are not directly connected to universities abroad. Instead, they may have their own study abroad centers offering courses that are specially designed for their exchange students. These courses may not be as rigorous as the college classes you’re used to, and unless your provider offers something really rewarding like intensive language classes, you may feel as though you’re not getting your money’s worth.


So there you have it. When deciding whether study abroad direct enrollment or a third party provider program is for you, remember to research both options down to the nitty gritty, pour over the most recent program reviews, and talk to alumni if possible. Think about the main goals you want to achieve during your time abroad, whether it’s to improve your language fluency or to study a particularly unique topic, and find a program that matches them perfectly. Then, make an informed choice to ensure that your study abroad experience is totally worth it!