JB: So ISEP, at its base we are a multilateral student movement organisation, so we essentially facilitate agreements between our university members and help them to meet their mobility goals. The basic premise is a student from an institution in the United States pays tuition, housing and meals in US dollars, but the rate would include institutional aid and any scholarships that they have. That creates a space on their campus for another student from some other member of our network, but the other person pays in their own currency.
“The good part is there are limitless options of where someone could study; the bad is that it is a really hard business model to control”
The PIE: So it is very much reciprocal exchange?
JB: Exactly, but the interest doesn’t have to be directional. So if a student from the US wants to go to France, it doesn’t have to be a student from France filling their spot; it can be a student from Japan or Latin America or somewhere else.
The good part is that there are probably limitless options of where someone could study; the bad is that it is a really hard business model to control, because there is so much flexibility. It’s contingent on what happens in the year or where interest is going; you can’t really gauge that in advance.
The PIE: So how big is the network?
JB: 330 institutions in 54 countries. Our largest membership is obviously in the States, we have roughly 160 US institutions that are members and then the other half are the rest of the world.
And our model allows us to have members and programmes in places that are usually overlooked by the US study abroad market – because we work multilaterally we have members in Bulgaria, the Baltic states, Ghana, Indonesia, Malaysia and others.
“Our model allows us to have members and programmes in places that are usually overlooked by the US study abroad market”
The PIE: Is it set up through a charity? Who founded the model?
JB: We were founded in 1979 and operated through Georgetown University through Federal funding under the Fulbright-Hays Act. In the ‘80s we became a membership organisation, and by 1990 we were more than 200 institutions, and when that part of the Fulbright administration dried up and there was no longer funding, ISEP incorporated as its own non-profit in 1997.
Now we generate revenue 100% by membership use, so the institutions pay an annual fee to be a part of the network. Then we charge the students a placement fee to participate in a placement, and we also operate more traditional study abroad programmes – what we call in the States direct enrol programmes abroad – and so that generates a margin that we reinvest into supporting the exchange component.
Our two basic tenets are affordability and access. And so we don’t want to fee our way out of trying to provide that model, because we’re achieving cool results engaging non-traditional or under-represented students in study abroad. We don’t actively spend anything to recruit those students, so it does speak to the nature of our model because it allows for opportunities for students who wouldn’t normally think of studying abroad.
The PIE: How have you seen study abroad out of the US change in the nearly seven years you’ve been at ISEP?
“In the US, the trend is the same that is happening everywhere, which is more faculty led, more short term experiences”
JB: In the US, the trend is the same that is happening everywhere, which is more faculty led, more short term experiences, which offer value but I see them as being an extension of the classroom rather than something that is not available at your home institution. I taught languages for a long time, so I would bring high school students on a week abroad to Italy. That was valuable but do I think it would replace them spending a semester at an Italian institution and working or teaching there? Then no. It was a way of extending what I could offer to them in the classroom; the lesson was essentially the same.
The PIE: Do you think there is more appetite among US students for study abroad?
JB: I could be wrong, but I think maybe the awareness of the opportunity is increasing but I don’t think participation is increasing. If you look at Open Doors, the level of participation is increasing along the same pace as enrolment at US institutions, so I don’t know if the overall percentage of students that are studying abroad is increasing.
That said… everyone’s primary measuring stick is the amount of students that are having an abroad experience. I kind of philosophically have a problem with that, if you’re really focused on getting more students to study abroad but you’re not really preparing them or not thinking of how they are digesting their time abroad, then do we know what we’re achieving? There is no real strong quantitative or even correlative data that shows that an abroad experience does lead to more employability outcomes. We perceive that to be true, employers say that is true, students feel that is true but there is no data actually proving that.
“The reverse could happen – we could send more students abroad and they could have terrible experiences and become terrible ambassadors”
So maybe more numbers isn’t the right sort of focus initially. Maybe it is more of a focus on creating resources for students to articulate that, and maybe we have to put those in place first. Because the reverse could happen too – we could send more students abroad and they could have terrible experiences and become terrible ambassadors for what we are trying to do.
I don’t know if there is one right model, but I think we aren’t doing enough to force ourselves to look at other industries and how they’re seeking to see how they are contributing more broadly to innovation, creativity, employment or global issues.
The PIE: You must collect data from students who you send abroad, how many are happy and how many feel left on their own?
JB: Honestly, most of the qualitative side we get in from students is positive. We actually don’t provide a lot of hand holding in the traditional US sense because we don’t have a resident director or a study centre on campus, but part of our vetting is that members have to be able to demonstrate they have the infrastructure and resources to support incoming students.
“If anything, the biggest area of complaint we receive is, ‘I paid X so I want X amount of services'”
I think you could have made an argument in the 1980s that a direct enrol model was setting students up to be lost within a system that was incomprehensible to them. But now, Australia being one example – even Europe now has 30 years of Erasmus experience – where a lot of these offices are well staffed to understand how to handle the diversity of students that are coming from different disciplines, different socio-economic means, different cultural norms. So to a certain extent, they are better prepared than a lot of our US institutions to handle diverse student needs and make them feel part of the campus.
Some situations you are never going to be able to avoid. If a student at a US campus is paying $25,000 for their semester and they go to France and they realise that another student paid €500 for the same thing, if they’re looking at it from a monetary perspective, I can understand why they will be upset, right? If anything, the biggest area of complaint we receive is, “I paid X so I want X amount of services.” That is understandable. That’s about setting expectations.