Renewed efforts to promote study abroad as one million target remains distant

Published 01/03/2024

More than a decade after the US missed out on a goal of sending one million study abroad students overseas annually, the sector is still struggling to increase outbound numbers.

Study Abroad Day was celebrated on February 26 this year, with renewed efforts to promote international opportunities for US students.

Writing in The Hill, executive director and CEO of NAFSA, Fanta Aw, and president and CEO of The Forum on Education Abroad, Melissa A. Torres, emphasised that after the “crippling effects” of Covid-19, only 1% of all US college students studied abroad in the 2021/22 academic year.

It comes as NAFSA extended its Tamara H. Bryant Memorial Scholarship program and IES Abroad unveiled a “breakthrough” initiative to increase access to study abroad.

The latest Open Doors data shows that over 188,000 US students took part in study abroad programs for academic credit in 2021/22, with Europe being the dominant destination.

In 2018/19, there were 347,099 US students studying abroad for academic credit.

The Commission on the the Abraham Lincoln Study Abroad Fellowship Program, launched in 2005, initially had the “ambitious goal” for the US to send one million college students abroad each year by 2010.

The failure to rise outbound numbers beyond 200,000 “is to the detriment of our students, overall US competitiveness, and our country’s standing on the global stage”, Aw and Torres said.

“Student interest is not the issue”

Citing TerraDotta research, they said that a majority (72%) of US college students express a desire to study abroad.

“Student interest is not the issue,” they explained. “Universities are doing their part by offering safe educational overseas programs that reflect innovations in technology and the changing educational and workforce landscape.”

While the pair say that the positive effects of study abroad have not been effectively communicated to students or the broader public, they note that the country has not “done enough to make education abroad affordable for every college student”.

They say that congress must pass the Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Program Act, which was most recently reintroduced in July 2023.

The act would enable students to use State Department funds to reduce study abroad expenses, they highlighted, adding that cost has historically been a top prohibitive factor.

However, not everyone agrees that the federal government should be solely relied on for support.

“For decades we have been trying to increase the numbers of students studying abroad. This effort has been noble but it has clearly stalled,” chairman of AIFS, William L Gertz, told The PIE News.

“The field desperately needs to pivot.

“The Simon Bill has been languishing for a decade. Our government has other priorities,” he said.

The experienced study abroad stalwart would “frankly rather see more funding for child care or housing or food rather than a big initiative which doesn’t get off the ground”.

“So would a great majority of Americans,” he added.

However, he agreed that efforts to promote overseas studies needs to be focused on funding.

IES Abroad’s new High-Impact Aid Commitment is designed to “strategically allocates resources” to those with high financial need and simplify the financial aid process, the provider has said.

“The significant increase in student financial need [in recent years] has highlighted the growing difficulty for students to access transformative study abroad experiences,” president and CEO of IES Abroad, Gregory D. Hess, said.

“We took it upon ourselves to do something about it by re-shaping our financial aid program to address the evolving landscape of international education.”

The new approach will target historically underrepresented and financially disadvantaged students, with those with the highest need receiving an average of $2,000 more in financial aid.

A pilot in Spring 2024 with a group of 12 institutional IES Abroad Consortium members, saw a 194% increase in financial aid applications.

Starting from Spring 2025, the program is now being rolled out to all 270+ IES Consortium Member schools.

The new program is “a revolutionary approach to financial aid that centers around funding transparency and supporting students”, according to Associate Director of Financial Aid for IES Abroad, Susan Thomas.

“[It] will change the lives of so many more students, and I look forward to seeing the widespread impact this has on students and the field at large as we continue to push for greater access to study abroad.”

In 2021/22, Brigham Young University saw 2,878 of its students joining international programs for credit, the latest Open Doors data showed – more than any other US institution.

Through its Kennedy Center’s International Study Programs offerings, BYU has previously said that the high number of students going abroad is down to the passion of staff as well as the variety of programs offered beyond languages, culture and international affairs courses.

Speaking with The PIE, associate director of BYU’s International Study Programs, Lynn Elliott, noted that the institution has strategically targeted a group of students to encourage them to study overseas.

“As an industry, I think we’ve made big strides,” he said. “We have sent a lot more students abroad on the whole, especially pre-Covid.

“The kind of students that we really need to target are those students who aren’t necessarily in financial need but those students who perceive international education or study abroad as completely outside of their realm of their ability to do. And part of that is an educational thing,” he told The PIE.

“Our university has 12 colleges on campus, all of them have some kind of international programming”

BYU has been successful in its study abroad ambitions, thanks to faculty, with international experiences of their own, being encouraged to develop international offerings for students.

“In the last few years, we’re really starting to see the fruit of those efforts. Our university has 12 colleges on campus, all of them have some kind of international programming.

“When students come to their stats class and find out that their professor has ties internationally and says, ‘you know, this is something you might want to consider’, then it starts to break down this perception of it being something they can’t do.”

However, Elliott acknowledged that some students could never do a study abroad without significant funding and that there are still many students who don’t join study abroad programs.

“There’s still a high percentage of students on campus who don’t go on study abroad or do international things. We’re still playing the game. We’re still trying to make it work for everyone. But, we’re making progress.

“It’s never a bad thing to have more funding for study abroad, but just doing the math, if we want to have a million students abroad, it’s going to take a lot more than this Simon Act,” he said.

“[Funding] is clearly the reason why the numbers have not increased since the 1990s,” Gertz continued.

“The will is there; the money is not.”

Private and foundation funding efforts could be one solution, he suggested, which the public could get behind, rather than funding through tax payer money.

Last year, associate director for Special Programs at the BYU’s Kennedy Center, Cory Leonard, emphasised that scholarships via its Global Opportunity Initiative, supported by the Sorensen Legacy Foundation, alumni and friends “makes the difference for first-gen, international, married, and hard-working students”.

“A billion dollars is needed to significantly move the needle”

“A billion dollars is needed to significantly move the needle while focusing on diversity and equity. It’s a drop in the bucket when you start to think how many lives have been impacted by an overseas experience,” Gertz concluded.

NAFSA itself offers scholarships through the Tamara H. Bryant Memorial Scholarship program, which it recently extended for the next three years with a $150,000 commitment.

It also publishes financial aid information for students, families and institutions about study abroad programs.

The Biden administration has previously said that study abroad is a “priority”, and NAFSA and The Forum on Education Abroad say that government has a chance to open new opportunities.

“We urge congress to pass this legislation before the end of the year,” Aw and Torres concluded, in an effort to get someway toward the one million ambition.

“The US cannot simply not afford to make an education abroad experience available to only a small sliver of its college population.”

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