By Janice Mulholland

07 July 2014 - 14:58

'Many students only want to pack their suitcases for a short stint studying abroad, rather than a full year.' Photo (c) Natasha Mileshina, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 and adapted from the original.
'Many students only want to pack their suitcases for a short stint abroad, rather than a full year.' Photo ©

Natasha Mileshina, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 and adapted from the original.

What are the trends in study abroad? The British Council's Janice Mulholland explains the big issues in US universities' international education programmes.

Unlike in the UK, there's no US national policy on international study

The US education system is highly decentralised. This means there's little national co-ordination on most higher education policy issues, including those that affect student mobility. The Department of Education does have a hand in study abroad, but mostly indirectly through its federal financial aid programmes, which students can use to study abroad. The Department of State also plays a role in supporting student mobility through its grant programmes such as Fulbright and initiatives like 100,000 Strong.

This is a direct contrast to the British higher education structure and policy environment. In the UK, the government has set a national goal for 20 per cent of UK students to study abroad.

Every US university runs its international study programmes differently

Within this decentralised higher education system, each American institution also has a unique way of running international activities. Some universities might have somebody doing the equivalent of what in the UK would be called a 'Pro Vice Chancellor for International Studies' job, but the title and responsibilities of that position will vary quite a bit.

There is also no consistency as to where international programmes, including study-abroad offices, sit within the university structure. On some campuses, international study offices may be aligned with academic units, while at other colleges, they might exist as a student service.

This can also affect how study-abroad offices are funded -- through general funds for central administration, on a cost-recovery basis, or a hybrid model.

Most students only want to study abroad for a few weeks -- not a full year

The tradition of study abroad in the US grew out of the ‘Junior Year Abroad’ model developed in the first part of the 20th century. While a declining number of US students still choose to study abroad for a full academic year (seven per cent), the trends in study abroad are moving much more in the direction of short-term experiences. In fact, enrolment in study-abroad programmes lasting eight weeks or less has grown by nearly 250 per cent over the past decade according to data from the Institute of International Education.

Universities are thinking up new ways to provide international experience

This trend towards short-term study abroad makes it clear that students’ bandwidth for time spent abroad is narrowing. Because of this, universities have to think more flexibly about study-abroad models. Traditional year-long, semester, exchange and even summer models no longer cut it. People working in international education in the US are putting a lot of effort into how to make the most out of the student experience during short periods abroad. They are also coming up with new models that can respond to the pressures -- both academic and otherwise -- facing students today.

Some US universities are redesigning service learning and volunteer programmes, so that they have more direct educational results (i.e., students get course credit for doing them), and bringing these under the umbrella of their other study-abroad programmes. Other institutions have introduced gap-year programmes, which give students the opportunity to defer their place at college and first take part in a gap year set up by the university. Yet other institutions have introduced freshman abroad programmes, which take new students abroad for a portion of their first year.

Study abroad has grown into an industry

Data from the Institute of International Education shows that US student enrolment in study abroad has increased by 150 per cent in the last decade.

As study abroad has grown in the US, so has the need to support it well. Many colleges and universities rely on structures and services outside of their own institution -- usually in the form of third-party providers and/or consortia for study abroad -- to provide diverse programme options. Over the years, this ecosystem of support has developed into a growing industry. There's no official data on this, but it is estimated that some 40-50 per cent of US students going abroad do so through provider organisations.

Study-abroad programmes aren't valued for their academic clout

Despite this growth, the amount of US students signing up to study abroad is still very low compared with total student enrolment. It is estimated that less than two per cent of US undergraduates study abroad each year and fewer than one in ten Americans graduate from university having had a study-abroad experience.

On many US campuses, study abroad has grown outside of the academic side of the institution. Because of this -- and perhaps a variety of other reasons -- the academic value of study abroad is not always understood. It is still largely seen as an educational ‘extra’ and is not always understood by employers (although research on this varies). Recent British Council research also shows that the main non-academic factors motivating US students to study abroad is to experience another culture or have an adventure. This aligns perhaps with broader public perceptions of study abroad.

Both countries want to encourage students to study abroad

While the US and UK systems and structures may be different, I think there is a lot we can learn from each other as both countries look to increase the number of students graduating with global experience.

The US and UK share a strong education relationship, but it is being tested. Both countries have begun to shift their focus to emerging markets and countries. The UK is still the top destination for US students, but its market share has declined in the past decade, as other countries such as China have become more popular. And while the US is also the top choice for UK students, the total number of UK students going abroad is still low. This is why there's been a recent push in the UK to increase outward student mobility.

This post is a summary of a recent discussion between the author and a delegation of UK university administrators and policy makers, who are currently on a two-week tour of the US to discuss US-UK student mobility. The tour is sponsored by the US Embassy in London, and comes at a time when both countries are looking to increase study abroad.

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