Goucher College announced with great fanfare  last fall that it would begin requiring all its students to spend at least some portion of their undergraduate years studying in another country, but not everyone at the Baltimore liberal arts college was 100 percent sold on the idea.
The college's admissions officers saw the same upsides that other officials perceived -- bolstering international awareness, strengthening students’ language skills, etc. But as the people responsible for keeping the classrooms and dorm rooms filled with talented undergraduates, they had an underlying fear: that mandating international study would drive away enough potential applicants to offset any hoped-for enrollment gains.
“They were by far the most anxious in the debate leading up to” the decision, says Roberto Noya, Goucher’s vice president for enrollment management. “A lot of schools have feared that doing something like this would hurt them.”
To the admissions office’s relief, and to Goucher’s satisfaction, college officials say that the institution has had its best admissions year ever: applications were a record high, yield was the strongest ever, and enrollment is at an all-time peak, without any dropoff in student quality and with an increase in diversity. It is impossible to know for sure at this stage whether the imposition of the study abroad requirement is solely or primarily responsible for the uptick in admissions and enrollment, Noya says.
But “one irrefutable statement we can make,” he says, “is that this did not hurt us in the least, and given that a lot of schools have considered things like this but begged off because it looked risky, that’s saying something.”
Although study abroad can be expensive and risky, especially in an era of heightened concerns about terrorism, many institutions (including the University of Denver ) have expanded their offerings in recent years in response to their own and their students’ desires to promote cross-cultural understanding and to ensure that America and Americans are engaged citizens in the global economy and culture.
But while numerous institutions have contemplated institutionalizing study abroad in as an outright requirement, Goucher’s announcement last fall  made it the first American college other than Soka University of America, a small California institution founded by the Soka Gokkai lay Buddhist sect in 2001, to do so. Beginning with those admitted this fall, every Goucher student must spend at least three weeks studying in another country, and the college has committed to providing $1,200 vouchers to help cover travel costs.
The change appears to have been a draw for students. As of Friday, 467 students had joined the class of 2010, an increase of more than a third over last year’s freshman class of 340 and 15 percent higher than the previous peak of 400 in 2004. The new students were chosen from among about 3,200 applicants, up from slightly under 3,000 last year, and nearly 22 percent of those offered admission agreed to enroll, up from about 17 percent in 2005 and the previous high of 20 percent in 2004. The academic credentials of the class of 2006 parallel those of previous classes, Noya says, and the new freshmen include slightly greater numbers of low-income and minority students than prior years did.
Noya notes that without surveying the new students about why they decided to come to Goucher -- which college officials plan to do -- the institution cannot say for sure that the adoption of the study abroad mandate has attracted students. But the college made no other meaningful changes in its admission or other policies in the last two years “that could possibly explain a 15 percent increase in enrollment” over 2004, Noya says.
“But it’s also important to say that the fear that this would hurt us in the admissions front has turned into a nonfactor,” Noya says, adding that he hopes that might inspire other colleges that might have contemplated such a change to give it a shot.