How to fix study abroad
“Surveys of high school seniors reflect that the vast majority of the future collegians expect to study abroad. Unfortunately, this expectation ends up being more of a dream than a reality”
Mark Shay, CEO of Abroad101 – which some describe as the ‘TripAdvisor of Study Abroad’ – argues that when it comes to studying abroad, US institutions need to do more than simply aim to increase numbers. With red tape and credit transfer proving to be stubborn obstacles, he argues that an overhaul is needed.
Americans perceive study abroad as a prideful, traditional centerpiece of the Liberal Arts experience. The image of leaving the home campus to immerse oneself in a foreign culture and gain a different perspective on life is viewed as a romantic extension of a college experience. Surveys of high school seniors reflect that the vast majority of the future collegians expect to study abroad. Unfortunately, this expectation ends up being more of a dream than a reality – because 95% of all American college students will not study abroad, we need to change.
College brochures are filled with visions of study abroad as a way to entice new students. IIE is leading a campaign to double participation by 2020; even the White House has joined the call to increase study abroad numbers. These initiatives don’t reflect the reality that study abroad is stuck and without significant retooling study abroad risks fading from the American college experience. Study abroad will be possible to only a select number of privileged students, or be relegated to short-term vacation-style touring unless we take bold steps.
“Even the White House has joined the call to increase study abroad numbers. These initiatives don’t reflect the reality that study abroad is stuck and without significant retooling risks fading from the American college experience”
To boost participation numbers, universities have started promoting faculty-led programs in which home university groups (including the faculty member) study abroad together. These programs tend to be short in duration and squeezed within semester breaks or holidays. They also tend to only draw students from one university because of variance in academic calendars. Universities also tend to have their own faculty and departments promote these programs delivering even less diversity. Some argue these programs are having a negative impact on study abroad.
While these programs have boosted volume, their shorter duration has kept the number of credit hours earned abroad flat, at best. Unfortunately this number doesn’t get reported which means that we really don’t have any insight into the true economic and academic impact of American-style study abroad. Further limiting the market is the restrictive practices imposed by US universities with what are called pre-approved programs, selected by criteria that is not always in the student’s best interest. As a result, students increasingly have to consider summer if the approved programs are out of students’ reach (academically, financially or otherwise). Universities outside the US make individual access hard as well as many don’t accept tuition-paying students (so called Free Movers) and only allow students from exchange partners or in the faculty-led groups.
“In the 25 years that I’ve been in the field, study abroad has gone from a free market to a complicated maze of pre-approved programs”
In the 25 years that I’ve been in the field, study abroad has gone from a free market, where students are able to choose any program as long as it generates a transcript from a recognized university, to a complicated maze of pre-approved programs, endorsed providers, consortium exchanges and third-party operated overseas campus centers and group tours. The red tape and hurdles through which students are required to jump for other programs are massive; one provider told me of 62 steps needed for a student to be approved for their study abroad program. In the US, approximately half of the university students will transfer to another university, and yet we see these same universities fight to restrict semester-long departures from campus.
Study abroad administrators created a Standards Development Organization that has guided an important dialog about the elements of a successful program. However, in its 14 years of existence, this SDO has offered a host of concepts and theoretical tools, but no universal controls or tangible standards. Without clearly defined standards, we can’t streamline and make practical improvements to study abroad. Today, academic credit (the currency of study abroad) is more difficult to transfer that it has ever been and “transparency”, the pledge to share student experiences, is as elusive as ever.
“Today, academic credit is more difficult to transfer that it has ever been and ‘transparency’, the pledge to share student experiences, is as elusive as ever”
It is harder to study abroad than it is to get admitted to college. The college application process in the US has a common application, standardized entrance exams (2), common academic credentials, common definitions of enrollment status and a national student clearinghouse for verification; even a common set of federal government reporting criteria. All of this is missing in study abroad which on some days get me to wonder how ANY students manage to study abroad.
If we want to encourage more students to study abroad, we need to properly define and standardize the process. We need to create a simplified common application that can be shared by universities, providers, and exchange programs. We need to develop a common set of definitions, simplify the concept of measurable outcomes, require minimum standards for things like insurance, and better report on these to all stakeholders, especially future students and their parents. I say let’s work to build capacity in study abroad by creating real minimum standards and tangible action points so that all students can access a study abroad experience and reap the benefits it brings.
Mark Shay is a business leader with a long history of success helping higher education institutions recruit and retain students, with a career that has spanned three decades. He is known throughout the higher education industry as an innovator for developing products like Gradschools.com, StudyAbroad.com and creating international student recruiting solutions for agents and universities.