American Students Studying Abroad Has Declined for First Time in 25 Years

The Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange released on Nov. 15 reported a decrease in the number of American students studying abroad. Published annually by the Institute of International Education — with funding from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs — the report shows that 260,327 students studied abroad for credit during the academic year 2008-09, compared to 262,416 the previous year, a modest decline of 0.8%.

For the first time in the 25 years that the data has been tracked, the total number of U.S. students studying abroad for academic credit did not increase. Cost seems to be the number one obstacle with the poor economy cited as the main reason students didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to gain valuable international experience.

The report found, however, that there were notable increases in the number of U.S. students going to study in less traditional destinations and a decrease in the number of students going to four of the top five study abroad destinations — the UK, Italy, Spain and France. China, the fifth leading destination, saw an increase of 19%. Fifteen of the top 25 destinations were outside of Western Europe — Argentina, South Africa, Chile — and nineteen were countries where English is not a primary language. The report also showed an increase of 37% in the number of students participating in practical work experiences as part of their study abroad, with 18,715 students now receiving academic credit at U.S. colleges and universities for internships or work abroad.

This last bit of information is good news. Evidence continues to mount that working and living abroad is a key differentiator in global competition, and students will benefit from this experiential education after graduation. Multinational companies benefit from a global work force. Consequently, their demand for graduates with international experience continually increases, but employers also want students who can usefully bring their international experience to work. An internship or part-time job can make a big difference.

So can a more integrated curricula with foreign language and cultural immersion. American universities have begun and must continue to adapt so more students can afford to study abroad and, increasingly, in the countries that are showing strong economic growth. But they also need to adapt their programs; taking classes in English at an American university taught by teach-abroad professors is no longer enough. Schools must integrate the global experience into the curriculum by incorporating language learning and a part-time job or internship find students better able to navigate the cultural terrain and understand how to apply this learning to a job.

For example, the entire study abroad course — be it three weeks or a full year — should begin at the home campus with intense cultural and intellectual preparation. Some schools offer courses in history, politics, economics and geography. Others require students to research an aspect of country and culture, make a presentation to the department before they leave, and then again upon their return home with updated findings and experience. Others teach from the perspective of a particular group, such as government regulators, consumers or manufacturers, and then incorporate the real deal in the classroom in country. Local language learning, a mixture of international student classrooms, relevant classes and excursions with a purpose make a world of difference in bringing enhanced academic rigor to the study abroad program. It’s also a deep cultural dive that students can use in their careers — at the very least to develop their international resumes to launch a global career.

Studies have shown that in addition to increased self-awareness, confidence, and professional direction, these budding internationalists have improved academic performance, higher graduation rates, and improved knowledge of cultural practices and context compared to students in control groups.

Although the numbers are down for 2008-09, Open Doors conducted a snapshot survey last month of 238 colleges; 55% reported an increase in the numbers of students going abroad last fall, a sign that the 2008-09 decline could be a short-term blip. This is good news; we’ve got to make it more affordable and more professionally rewarding for students to study abroad because international experience is moving from “nice to have” to “must have.”

As originally published on Huffington Post on Nov. 16, 2010.