Student Demand for Global Experiences Rebounds

Higher ed institutions identify successful measures to satisfy students’ interest and participation in study abroad programs.

By: Ankita Bhanot
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Many higher education leaders believe that a notable two-year downturn in study abroad engagement was just a temporary consequence of the pandemic and not indicative of the future of these programs. With proper institutional engagement, universities can satisfy the rebounding student demand for global diversity experiences through short- and long-term options that accommodate nearly any major. 

Despite the historical success and popularity of international study programs, an Open Doors Data study shows that, in 2019-20, the total number of U.S. students who studied abroad declined by 53% from the prior academic year. Leaders in higher ed agree that, had it not been for the pandemic, U.S. universities would have continued on the previous trend of increasing popularity, with more and more students studying internationally each year as the programs expanded.

A graph for years 1989 through 2020, with an ever increasing red line showing the increased engagement in study abroad programs, with a sharp decline in 2019.

“The number of study abroad students decreased precipitously during the pandemic. However, there is no indication that the previous trend — which was an upward slope — will not rebound,” noted Nick Gozik, an associate professor and the dean of global education at Elon University, in an email. “Rather than simply looking at overall numbers, a large focus in the field has been devoted to considering who goes abroad, with a goal of making sure that study abroad is accessible and welcoming to all students. Time will tell whether the downturn is an aberration or the start of a new trend.”

Elon University was ranked third for study abroad by U.S. News and World Reports, first within the Institute of International Education (IIE)’s Open Doors report for the 17th year and first by Princeton Review.

A large focus in the field has been devoted to considering who goes abroad, with a goal of making sure that study abroad is accessible and welcoming to all students

Gozik explained that, although Elon University did experience a decline in participation during the pandemic, the school quickly rebounded, due largely to students’ pent-up demand to graduate with a global experience. Elon University’s January 2022 programs received the largest number of applications in the institution’s history, according to Gozik. The university also promotes short-term programs developed and led by Elon faculty and staff. The intensive programs, which focus on a specific subject area, can last from three to six weeks with multiple opportunities throughout the year.

Elon University's Isabella Cannon Global Foundation Center offers short-term and full-semester study aboard programs.

Melissa A. Torres, the president and CEO of the Forum on Education Abroad, a non-profit membership association that provides training and resources to education abroad professionals, believes that student interest in studying and interning abroad is quite strong and that the numbers are quickly rebounding. She often collaborates with Dickinson University, ranked 19th in the country for its study abroad programs by the U.S. News & World Report study.

“I disagree with the premise that nationally the number of students studying abroad is declining for any reason other than the COVID-19 pandemic,” Torres said. “I believe student interest in studying and interning abroad is quite strong and the numbers are quickly rebounding. A major challenge at this point in time for colleges, universities and education abroad organizations is to rebuild the capacity for providing these programs to meet student demand. The Center for Global Study and Engagement (CGSE) fosters global learning in the traditions of the liberal arts and sciences.”

Successful Programs

Higher ed leaders agreed that focused time, attention and financial investment in study abroad programs are the leading factors in their universities’ growth and success. When campuses provide robust academic programs and continue to expand the opportunities, students become as invested in getting a global education. 

“One of the reasons Elon has remained strong in study abroad is due to our institutional culture,” Gozik said. “Students list study abroad as one of the top reasons they come to Elon. Our institution has invested significantly in making sure that funding is available for study away programs through grants and scholarships, many of which are made possible by alumni, parents, and current students.”

Moreover, almost 100% of the universities listed in the U.S. News & World Report’s top 25 for study abroad programs appear to have a separate center on campus dedicated specifically to study abroad and international education programs. A center focused solely on study abroad programs gives universities the resources that they need to grow and expand their research. 

U.S. News & World Report ranked New York University, Middlebury College and Agnes Scott College among the top colleges offering robust study abroad programs. Study abroad programs in higher education have long been part of the university experience in the United States, both for their ability to enrich a student’s life and academics and for the diversity of culture and thought that the programs bring to a campus. A truly immersive  program is one that requires intensive interaction between the student and a new culture, including opportunities for students to socialize with locals, learn the language and receive a quality academic education.

“Through language and cultural immersion, a global curriculum on campus and abroad, as well as the integration of international scholars and students into our community, the center collaborates across the college’s divisions, academic departments and programs, as well as with Dickinson centers and partner institutions abroad, to promote inclusion, academic excellence and an intercultural dimension of lifelong learning,” Torres said. “I believe it is this strong commitment that has enabled Dickinson to continue to be a leader within the education abroad community and to provide exceptionally high quality programs for its students.”

Dickinson College's Center for Global Study and Engagement provides more than 50 study abroad programs in 15 countries.

U.S. News & World Report recognized Michigan State University as ninth in the U.S. for its study abroad programs. Media and Public Information Communications Manager Mark Bullion agreed that MSU’s study abroad programs are continually strengthened through assessment of student learning, as well as robust health, safety and security protocols. MSU has a central Office for Education Abroad that provides overall administrative and structural support, offers general advising and promotes opportunities broadly.

“We know that providing quality education abroad programs fosters student success and supports MSU’s mission to prepare students to contribute fully to society as globally engaged citizen leaders,” said Bullion. “A lot of the marketing is done directly in the colleges and by faculty themselves, allowing for really targeted promotion to the students most likely to participate, especially in those opportunities that are connected to their degree programs.”

Michigan State University's Office for Education Abroad has a dedicated website for students to research relevant study abroad information.

The dedicated website for MSU’s Office for Education Abroad includes information on upcoming meetings and passport funding. Most importantly, a section is dedicated to student stories, in which former student abroad participants describe their experiences, pictures and takeaways from the program.

Bullion said, “Word of mouth is also a significant factor whether it’s been two years or two decades, MSU study abroad participants are incredibly vocal about how transformative their experience was, and that excitement is contagious.”

Ankita Bhanot

Ankita Bhanot

Reporter

Ankita Bhanot is a writer and journalist based out of California and New York City. She holds a B.A. in journalism and psychology from NYU, where she reported for almost a decade at publications such as TED, NBC and MSNBC, covering political news, cultural events, immigrant communities and racial discrimination issues. In her spare time, she pursues her passion for music journalism by interviewing artists and photographing shows throughout the country.

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