How study abroad programs can increase participation

“Programs must continue to actively seek ways to grow the number of minority students”

College campuses have grown more diverse – with students of colour increasing from 30% of the undergraduate population in 1996 to 45% in 2016. But, argues Terra Dotta CEO Anthony Rotoli, the typical study abroad student remains Caucasian and female.

According to the 2019 Open Doors report, only 30% of all US study abroad students reflected a racial or ethnic minority during the 2017-18 academic year, well below their representation in the overall student body.

It is time to work harder to increase these numbers to collaboratively improve and increase overall educational opportunities for students of colour.

This is not a new higher education initiative. Many institutions are trying to increase minority participation in their study abroad programs (once it is safe to resume due to Covid-19) as study abroad programs have a measurable impact on student success, both during and after their college years.

According to IES Abroad and UC San Diego, when compared to their non-traveling peers, study abroad students were 15% more likely to graduate in four years. A further 90% found their first job within six months of graduation, compared to 49% for others, and they earned $7,000 more in starting salary.

And with racial, ethnic and other minorities encountering overt and subtle bias in the workplace, every opportunity is important.

Yet, study abroad programs must continue to actively seek ways to grow the number of minority students pursuing these opportunities – especially in a post Covid-19 environment. With this in mind, here are five ways to support diversity in your institution’s study abroad program.

1. Consider the barriers

Minority students often face additional challenges when it comes to learning about, affording and understanding the value of study abroad programs.

First-generation students may need extra guidance and assistance since their families may not have experience with college in general. Fortunately, there are specific ways to help with the barriers encountered by minority students.

First, address cost issues up-front. Many students might be dissuaded from even applying to study abroad because they believe it will be too expensive, so make it easy for them to gain information about financial aid, scholarships and grants.

Next, frame it as an investment. When meeting with prospective students and their parents, emphasise the impact that study abroad will have on a future career in the increasingly global workforce.

Enlist staff and faculty members as advisors, particularly those who have themselves studied abroad. As students plan their courses of study, ensure that faculty propose studying abroad as an integral part of the curriculum.

2. Streamline the application process

No matter how strong your program is, if the application process is onerous or time-consuming, students will get discouraged. This is especially true if they are juggling classwork with jobs and family obligations – a factor that will increase in relevance in today’s pandemic economy.

Many students don’t realise that multiple steps are needed, such as obtaining letters of recommendation, completing a physical or health exam, applying for a visa and writing an essay.

Program advisors can help by providing a checklist and by simplifying the number of steps in the process, where possible. Have resources, such as staff, faculty or former program participants, available to help with the application process and provide useful tips and insights.

3. Don’t forget the details

Minority students who are dependent on financial aid or have little to no family support may have trouble paying for passport fees, deposits or travel insurance.

Some innovative schools have sought out programs, such as the CIEE Passport Caravan, which has provided thousands of free passports to college students.

4. Fine-tune your marketing

Diversifying study abroad program staff and volunteers will help ensure students meet people who they identify with and can relate to. Also, make sure your marketing materials feature images of racially and ethnically diverse students.

Most institutions have student affinity organisations for those of similar cultures, religions, sexual orientation or differing abilities. These groups are among the best places to reach students who might not seek out study abroad information on their own.

Sending program alumni from diverse backgrounds to these organisations adds an authentic voice to promoting the study abroad experience.

5. Build a Fan Base

Nothing defines today’s generation of students more than social media, so successful programs are using popular platforms to reach potential participants.

One program director launched a hashtag campaign where students received a promotional T-shirt and were encouraged to snap a picture and post it on social media.

Students who were already abroad also took photos and recorded YouTube testimonials. Program alumni are the best evangelists to prospective students. The better their experience, the more excited they’ll be to recommend study abroad to their peers.

A multi-pronged approach is needed to recruit students from diverse ethnic, racial and socio-economic backgrounds to study abroad programs.

Ultimately, these efforts will pay off in making this enriching opportunity available to minorities and students of color and are a way to help propel future career and financial success.

About the author: Anthony Rotoli is the CEO of Terra Dotta, a leader in higher education travel, study abroad and international program management solutions.