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Only 6% of American college students study abroad

The world’s challenges and opportunities are increasingly global and the resources supporting study abroad have never been greater, but why are so few American students pursuing international education?
November 15 2023
5 Min Read

At a time when the world’s challenges and opportunities are increasingly global and the resources supporting study abroad have never been greater, why are so few American students pursuing international education? As we work for a more peaceful future, it’s an important question to address.

Experience has taught us that leaders with an international education are the best equipped to co-create global solutions to global problems. 

In the just-released Open Doors 2023 report on International Exchange, the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the Institute of International Education found that of the 2.87 million students enrolled in college, just under 170,000 studied abroad in the 2021/22 academic year.

That’s less than 6% of all American college students. And a closer look at this small subset opting for international educational experiences reveals disturbing disparities among underrepresented students.

Consortium for Analysis of Student Success through International Education statistics show that just 8% are first-generation students, despite being one of the fastest-growing populations on American campuses today.

Also troubling are these findings of a 2022 survey of 3,106 US adults conducted by the Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs: Gen Z and Millennial Americans question the value of US involvement in world affairs, and are less interested in international affairs compared to older Americans.

This apparent lack of student interest is in bold contrast to the US government’s belief in the importance and value of international educational exchange. Over the last century, US foreign policy and diplomacy have counted on this interaction to help build mutual understanding and goodwill among nations.

The Department of State invests in nearly 50 educational exchange programs for US citizens.

Among them are the prestigious Fulbright Program and Gilman International Scholarship Program, the latter of which is open exclusively to college students receiving federal Pell Grants. In the last year alone, these programs have provided funds for nearly 7,000 American students, teachers, and others to engage in meaningful educational and cultural experiences overseas.

Funding opportunities are particularly abundant for first-generation and other underrepresented college students who add language and area studies to their undergraduate majors.

Through the U.S. Department of Defense’s Boren Awards, for example, American college and graduate students can receive up to $25,000 to study in world regions critical to US interests. In addition, DoD’s Language Flagships provide a four-year curriculum and an overseas capstone year for college students to reach professional proficiency in Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Persian, Portuguese, or Russian.

In addition to enriching students’ education — first-generation students who studied abroad had higher graduation rates than the general college population — international education builds resumes to compete for the best-paying jobs.

Consistent with these findings, a 2017 IIE study reported that students looking back on their study abroad largely credited the experience with enhancing critical, disruption-ready skills such as curiosity, adaptability, self-awareness, interpersonal skills, and tolerance for ambiguity.

So, with all these benefits and so many opportunities to study abroad, why aren’t more American students tapping in?

Through the IIE Center for Access and Equity, we’re collaborating with our peers across the field of international education to answer that pressing question and take action to bridge the gaps of awareness and opportunity. The Center’s new resource guide, Supporting First-Generation College Students in International Education, provides recommendations to do just that.

First, we must start by understanding what “study abroad” means to young people. Semester-long experiences for academic credit remain the traditional model. But we believe emphasising distinct kinds and lengths of study abroad has the potential to attract more first-generation college students according to their unique interests and identities.

Service learning, faculty-led, language immersion, internships, short-term, and non-credit are just some examples of the variety of experiences for first-generation students to consider.

Students should also be learning about studying abroad early and often through such touchpoints as early education and secondary schools, community colleges, campus financial aid offices, first-year orientation, parent associations, and student affinity and alumni groups.

“We must do a better job of communicating with members of students’ support system”

Students need to be aware of such programs as Rutgers University’s Access the World program, which earlier this year received IIE’s Andrew Heiskell Award honourable mention. Shifting funding from traditional scholarships into subsidies, Rutgers’ innovative initiative offers study abroad semesters at or below the cost of a semester on its home campus.

And we must do a better job of communicating with members of students’ support system — educators, advisors, parents, and mentors. We know from first-hand experience how important this can be.

Jason Czyz, one of the authors of this article, was a first-generation student from a working-class family from Chicago. He never thought about studying abroad until one day his high-school French teacher handed out a flyer about the Rotary Club’s international exchange program. That changed his life, unlocked cultural and educational experiences he never thought possible, and put him on a trajectory to provide opportunities for others to gain similar experiences.

Study abroad — whether short- or long-term, issue-driven, or language-immersive — provides expansive benefits and possibilities, particularly for first-generation and other underrepresented students. As members and supporters of this field, we owe it to future generations to make international education accessible to all. In an increasingly global environment, individuals and nations have much to gain from these life-changing experiences.

About the authors: Jason Czyz is IIE’s co-president and leads the organisation’s administrative departments as well as multiple programs funded by the Department of State, United States Agency for International Development, foundations, and international universities.

Courtney Temple is IIE’s executive vice president and chief administrative officer. She has oversight of multiple departments, including Human Resources, Administrative Services, Communications, and Higher Education Initiatives.

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