Study abroad was once considered a luxury. It’s now a necessity.
According to the nonprofit Institute of International Education (IIE), “studies show students who study abroad have better grades, experience less attrition, and graduate from college at higher rates than students who do not study abroad.”[i] Yet only about 10 percent of U.S. undergraduates, including community college students, will study abroad by the time they graduate.
How can colleges and universities improve study-abroad programs while better preparing students for the experience?
1. Train students to be savvy travelers and ambassadors.
Students preparing to study abroad are often given the standard admonitions: Don’t break any laws. Don’t drink too much. Try to stay out of trouble.
In a time of increased political tensions and potential threats, however, students may need more thorough preparation before they go overseas. At Susquehanna University, where every student must “study away,” either overseas or in the U.S., a seven-week preparatory course is required.[ii] At Franklin & Marshall College, where more than half of graduates have studied abroad, students must meet at least once with an off-campus study adviser to discuss their long-term goals, what they want to achieve overseas and where they should go.[iii]
2. Increase participation by lowering the barriers to entry.
In 2014, IIE launched the Generation Study Abroad initiative with the stated goal of doubling the number of U.S. students studying overseas by 2019. But how can colleges entice students who may not have planned to participate?
- Offer short-term sessions. Susquehanna has an array of 2- to 6-week GO Short study abroad programs during summer and winter breaks, in destinations such as Prague, Jerusalem and Tokyo.
- Focus on curricular integration. Program administrators say “the more tightly woven study abroad options are into the curriculum, the more likely students are to participate.”[iv] Kansas State University has an innovative program called the Study Abroad CAT Community. A small group of 22 first-year students takes two fall courses together, then travels abroad for a service learning project.
- Highlight scholarships. Study-abroad funding is abundant, but do your students know about it? Publicize opportunities such as the IIE’s Generation Study Abroad Travel Grants, worth $2,000 each.
3. Encourage study abroad in less-visited countries.
There’s no shortage of American students in the United Kingdom, Italy and Spain — the top three study abroad destinations, according to the annual “Open Doors” study.[v] But other countries are key to the future of American business and policy interests — particularly those in the Middle East and North Africa, says John Battenburg, an English professor at California Polytechnic State University.
The region drew just 2.2 percent of American study-abroad students, according to the 2016 Open Doors survey. “Rather than withdraw from a region that is perceived to be in crisis, international education administrators and faculty members in the United States have a responsibility to seek out opportunities in stable countries within the Arab world,” Battenburg writes for Inside Higher Ed.[vi]
China, of course, is another destination where studying abroad will serve students well. The Miami University’s Farmer School of Business offers a unique China Business Program that includes a study-abroad requirement, either an 8-week internship or a full semester. Participants get an official notation on their academic transcript identifying them as China business specialists.[vii]
4. Re-examine risk prevention practices.
Schools bear the responsibility of exercising “reasonable care to protect students in their charge from foreseeable dangers,” the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled in August 2017, when it upheld a $41.5 million verdict in favor of a high school student who contracted tick-borne encephalitis during a study-abroad trip. The student was bitten by a tick while hiking on Mount Panshan in China, in 2007.[viii]
The case remains pending (as of early 2018) in the U.S. Court of Appeals. The question, “was this rare disease actually foreseeable?” has not yet been resolved, and the ruling’s potential impact on colleges and universities is not yet known. Nevertheless, the suit may serve as a valuable wakeup call, suggests Gregory F. Malveaux, the author of “Look Before Leaping: Risks, Liabilities and Repair of Study Abroad in Higher Education.”
“It’s a reminder that study abroad risk and liabilities and best practices are going to be something that is going to have to be pushed at the forefront for those who design such programs and lead them,” Malveaux told Inside Higher Ed.[ix]
5. Ensure students have adequate protection from the what-ifs of study abroad.
No study-abroad program is without risk, but colleges can be proactive by ensuring students are educated about ways to protect themselves. One may be travel insurance with emergency medical benefits, to ensure a student gets rapid, high-quality care for a covered medical emergency. Travel insurance can also reimburse nonrefundable travel costs if a student must interrupt or cancel their trip for a covered reason. Another is tuition insurance, which protects students’ financial investment in study abroad by refunding college costs if they must withdraw from the program for a covered reason.