High school exchange: the transformation of an ever growing programme

“Exchange programmes have created extensive networks to support not only in-country exchange students but also host families”

With thousands of high school exchange students travelling abroad in 2018, it’s no surprise that such study abroad programmes are growing in popularity within the area of international study. Ivan Santos asks how did we get here, and what’s next for a programme in constant evolution?

The programme

High school exchange year programmes offer international students, aged 14-18, the unique opportunity to study a full academic year or semester abroad at a local high school. While English speaking countries rank at the very top of the list, wherever in the world that a student decides to go they experience a new culture, live as a member of a host family and improve their language skills.

Students—and their parents—see the programme as an opportunity to study abroad early on during their school life, benefiting from both language and cultural immersion at an earlier age. The programme has dramatically evolved in recent years, from a basic student enrollment and support process to the sophisticated operation it is today.

What has changed?

1. Insightful preparation courses. As exchange programmes usually start in late August and early September, most organisations also offer ‘welcome camps’; they’re add-on preparation courses that provide invaluable insights into a country’s culture and where international students get to experience what it’s like to study at a foreign high school for the first time, taking part in fun activities and sports while building up their confidence speaking English before they depart for their host families.

2. A shift in communication channels. In 2018, over 1,000 13 to 17-year-old students completed a communication and social media survey carried out by the non-profit organisation Common Sense. The results showed a complete shift in how students communicate and interact with one another.

According to the survey most of them, 35%, acknowledge texting as their favourite communication mode, with Snapchat outranking Facebook and Instagram. Moreover, 40% of the respondents use such platforms as their main go-to network, where they also trust in peer-to-peer reviews.

3. 24-hour support network. Exchange programmes have created extensive networks to support not only in-country exchange students but also host families. They provide 24/7 support and guidance even before an exchange starts.

Supported by teams that include programme advisors, international exchange coordinators and office staff, they offer a quick and smooth response service for students, their parents and host families.

4. The exchange community. Being involved in an exchange community once the programme has finished is one of the most valuable aspects of the experience.

Student ambassador groups where students find opportunities to develop their creative and leadership skills, or involvement in local communities and LinkedIn groups, are concepts that have also extended to host families and exchange coordinators.

“Being involved in an exchange community once the programme has finished is one of the most valuable aspects of the experience”

What’s next?

Caroline Willaume, Sales President at EF High School Exchange Year believes that such programmes will continue to grow: “Since 2017, we’ve increased our market share by 20% in some of our key markets, placing thousands of students in the US, the UK and Ireland”. Caroline refers to the “investment in customer experience, the optimisation of the placement process and the preparation of the students” as the main reasons for growth.

“Our goal is to provide first-class support not only to exchange students but to host families as well. We have recently developed an e-learning platform where host families have access to information about the students’ countries, helpful hosting material and personalised advice”.

As a result, EF experienced noticeable improvement on their NPS score, increasing 6 points over 2018.

However, Caroline also acknowledges the challenges that exchange programmes may face in the future: “We are the largest J-1 student visa provider designated by the US Department of State, but competition is fierce and the number of visas assigned to every organisation varies every year.

There’s also political and economic unrest in some host countries which we can’t control. We will focus on improving the programme and our marketing efforts every year, putting the student at the heart of everything we do”, she concluded.

Celebrating its ’40 Years of Exchange’ anniversary this year, EF High School Exchange Year’s main goal is to open the world through cultural exchange.

About the author: Ivan Santos is the content manager at Education First, which provides life-changing education for global citizens.