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Looking ahead into the unknown: US study abroad sector predicts cautious recovery

Pent up demand to travel and a resilient sector is giving US outbound program specialists hope – following the collapse of business as a result of the global health pandemic. But some warn that recovery will be gradual and the market will not return to its usual vitality until after 2024.

Italy was the second most popular destination for US outbound students in the latest IIE figures, hosting 39,000 students. Photo: Unsplash

"We believe summer will be small, followed by a larger fall semester and a fairly robust 2022"

Prior to the pandemic, the number of outbound higher education students from the US had been gradually heading in one direction. Upwards. According to IIE statistics, 347,099 joined study abroad programs in 2018/19, marking a 33% rise in numbers over a decade.

As the vaccine rolls out globally, several providers have told The PIE they expect recovery to be gradual and students will look for programs which can guarantee health and safety concerns. For many, 2021 will see small numbers of US students heading overseas.

It is not a question of whether outbound study abroad students return, but a matter of when, chairman, president and CEO of AIFS William Gertz states.

Summer 2021 and slashed budgets

“Countries are making great progress with the vaccine and testing,” he says. “We believe summer will be small, followed by a larger fall semester and a fairly robust 2022 with around 50% of 2019 levels.

“By 2024, we should be back to 330,000 US study abroad students.”

According to president and CEO of the Forum on Education Abroad (which is holding its annual conference March 1-5) Melissa Torres, budgets “across the spectrum have been slashed”.

While some education abroad providers have “eked out” tiny revenue from virtual internship programs or small numbers of students who’ve ventured abroad, many “have faced an entire year without any revenue at all”.

“Some colleges and universities have put in place hiring and/or budget freezes, affecting the ability to participate in professional development events such as workshops and conferences,” she relates.

“Other institutions have reassigned education abroad staff, or even furloughed or laid off their education abroad advisors and administrators.”

“Each destination and type of travel experience needs to be taken into account and evaluated”

Verto Education, which offers first year college students credit-bearing study abroad and direct admission to partner schools, agrees that many universities are cutting back on their in-house exchange programs.

“This has impacted some providers that help implement these programs on the ground,” says the company’s co-founder & COO Ben Welbourn.

However, providers have developed many creative programs in response to the pandemic, with varying levels of success, he continues. “We feel very fortunate that our programs continue to grow, but that is certainly not the norm.”

Time will tell if lower staffing levels will hamper the sector’s recovery.

As Torres noted for institutions, providers have also had to furlough or lay off staff, Welbourn explains, as well as pausing growth initiatives.

“Providers haven’t seen any ample support from the government beyond the support it has provided through initiatives like the PPP loan,” he says.

“The tone is beginning to shift though, with the next academic calendar over six months away, and vaccines rolling out. The field continues to stay highly optimistic.”

“While there is hope and optimism for increased opportunities to send students abroad, we just don’t know when and where that will be exactly,” David Comp, assistant provost for Global Education at Columbia College Chicago, highlights.

Additional and improved contingency plans are needed to allow the sector to be nimble and able to adjust quickly, should the pandemic throw more obstacles in the path, he contends.

“People-to-people diplomacy has long been recognised by both Republican and Democrat leaders”

Forum members are reporting interest from faculty in resuming their programs, Torres adds.

“The challenge lies in not knowing when students and faculty will have widespread access to vaccines, nor when universities will lift their “no travel” policies. Further, we don’t know what countries will require for quarantining and/or vaccination in order to obtain visas,” she says.

Testing, vaccines, and health and safety

Concerns for AFS-USA primarily centre on Covid-19 testing, quarantines, requirements of programs in each country, and ensuring questions from parents, guardians and students are thoroughly addressed, its president, Tara Hofmann, agrees.

“Information is changing all the time, so students also need to be flexible as to where they can and will study abroad this year.”

CEO and president at InterExchange notes that personal and community health and safety risks remain the “most pressing concerns”.

“Even as official restrictions are lifted, program sellers and providers must still consider if programs are in the best interest of the young traveller,” says Christine La Monica-Lunn.

“There never has been a one-size-fits-all approach to the outbound market and it is now especially essential to consider the unique indicators and restrictions for the destination.”

Welbourn of Verto Education adds,”Parents want access to their sons and daughters. We are seeing a massive pent up demand to travel, and students want to make sure that precautions won’t defeat the purpose of their travel by restricting movements and the ability to learn from the cultures they are visiting.”

New administration in the White House

Earlier in 2021, the new Secretary of State under the Biden administration Antony Blinken praised people-to-people exchanges for helping to “bring our world closer together” – comments that were widely welcomed by the sector.

In his first speech as secretary, Blinken – who is married to former Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs under Barack Obama, Evan Ryan – said that the exchanges “convey the best of America to the world, especially to its young people”.

“Having president Biden in the White House certainly provides hope on many levels for a more serious approach to combat the pandemic and increase and streamline vaccine distribution,” says Comp. Blinken has a “long documented history of supporting international educational and cultural programs”.

“People-to-people diplomacy has long been recognised by both Republican and Democrat leaders as a vital component of US public diplomacy,” Hofmann of AFS-USA reminds The PIE.

The new administration has brought hope to the inbound student market that the US will introduce more friendly international student and worker immigration policies, says Comp.

“For the US outbound student market we could use a more formal roadmap to recovery in collaboration with both federal and local governments so that we can begin sending students abroad again in larger numbers,” he suggests.

Roadmap to recovery

“I think the field of education abroad has been taking a long, hard look at what we’ve done right before and during the pandemic, and what needs to change,” Torres said.

While full recovery is a “way off”, the sector is beginning to rebuild and reimagine, AIFS’s Gertz adds.

“It’s an excellent time to work on Diversity, Inclusion and Equity issues,” he says. AIFS has recently released its first Plan of Action for Access, Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity.

“The field continues to stay highly optimistic”

While 31% of the 347,099 US students who studied abroad for academic credit in 2018/19 identified as racial or ethnic minorities, there was still work to be done to reach the 45% minority participation in US higher education.

Respondents to a November 2020 Diversity Abroad survey voiced concerns that the pandemic was worrying “in terms of maintaining funding to support study abroad”.

“We want to make sure that our enrolments in study abroad keep reflecting the college’s student population, which is a majority POC [people of colour],” a respondent said.

Virginia higher education institutions have collaborated to create a five-session Black+Abroad Virtual Series in March which promises to “promote candid conversation and equity among black students to encourage travel and study abroad”.

Biden’s perspective on public higher education and emphasis on access “could push international education providers to focus more on affordability, equity, and access”, Welbourn at Verto continues.

“I’m hopeful that this spurs innovations and helps transform international education in student-centric ways.”

“I’m hopeful that this spurs innovations and helps transform international education in student-centric ways”

“There is clearly pent up demand to travel and study abroad, and students are waiting for pandemic response and government policy to give the bright green light for study abroad to return to all corners of the globe.”

Providers should convey safety precautions – including quarantine protocols, access to care, and risk management plans – which will require collaboration of the US public health institute, the CDC, State Department, local governments at each destination, as well as local partners.

Verto has seen its programs continue to grow while it has also hired new staff. Photo: Verto

“They also need to minimise financial risk for families as much as possible,” Welbourn notes, such as Verto’s Enrollment Guarantee for students. “The more transparent providers can be, the more likely a swift recovery will be for the international education sector.”

Any route to recovery should “put safe and ethical travel front and centre”, agrees Monica-Lunn. “If travellers return in a way that prioritises public and personal health, we can confidently start connecting travellers with programs abroad. We need that confidence in order to work towards a full recovery.”

There is also renewed interest in how online global learning can be incorporated into traditional models of education abroad, Torres continues – but with one key condition.

“[There’s] a firm belief by practitioners and educators that [an online experience] is not in and of itself an alternative to being immersed in the sights, sounds, smells, and experiences afforded by living and studying in a new culture,” Torres underlines.

The study abroad sector is one that has shown resilience in the past, as many stakeholders acknowledge. IIE has noted that Covid-19 is the 12th pandemic in the organisation’s history, while others points to recovery after the events of September 11, 2001, the financial crises around 2008, as well as wars in the Middle East.

“Study abroad and cultural exchange always come back strong.  It is an essentially part of the student experience which will continue long after the pandemic,” Gertz predicts.

And for the US economy, study abroad is vital to build the long-term strength of the American workforce, Hofmann at AFS-USA enthuses.

“Providers that do make it through this year will have done so through ingenuity, grit, and creativity”

“Person-to-person citizen diplomacy increases the number of Americans who have multi-language and cross-cultural communications skills, as well as increasing skills in perseverance, resilience, and critical thinking.

“And, while students can study abroad in college, it is a different experience when students study abroad in high school because it is a time when they are forming their ideas and opinions and considering career paths.”

Some providers will not have “the financial runway to outlast the current climate”, Welbourn acknowledges. “The providers that do make it through this year will have done so through ingenuity, grit, and creativity, and they will be inheriting a less crowded space.

“The market will be hungry, and those offering programs will be equally eager to provide services to students.”

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