Study Abroad Shifts in Troubled Economic Times

Despite challenges, many colleges still expect increases in participation. Others, worried about transferring aid out of the institution, set limits.
February 23, 2009

PORTLAND, Ore. – A conference session here on being proactive in economically reactive times attracted a (proactive or reactive?) crowd. “The size of this audience, given the number of people here, shows that misery does love company,” Stevan Trooboff, president and CEO of the Council on International Educational Exchange, said Friday during the Forum on Education Abroad’s fifth annual conference.

But one of the take-aways from the session was that misery isn’t widely, or at the very least, equally shared in the field at this point. Fortunes seem to vary. In fact, many institutions are expecting increasing or at least flat study abroad enrollments in the near future – with the exception perhaps of some small private colleges that are hurting and are (proactively) attempting to keep their numbers down.

“There’s clearly an attempt by many of the private colleges already to limit or to restrict the numbers of students eligible to go on study abroad, and this is being done in a number of ways,” said Adrian Beaulieu, dean of international studies at Providence College, who, like his co-presenters Friday, had prepared for his talk by surveying colleges similar to his own (in this case New England private colleges).

“One is by raising the GPA requirement for study abroad. Several institutions have already done that,” he said. Other colleges have eliminated certain program options, and, he said, “Some institutions have actually already created, if you will, selection committees” to screen study abroad applicants.

Attempts to limit study abroad participation may seem counterintuitive, after years in which college presidents have loudly emphasized getting their study abroad numbers up, up, and up. Beaulieu traced this counter-phenomenon to a model of charging for study abroad common at private colleges -- the practice of charging study abroad students the home college’s tuition and fees and then making institutional financial aid portable.

The payment model – one of many, many models in the field -- is generally embraced among study abroad professionals as a gold standard, one that levels the playing field, opportunity-wise, for all students, since they can take their aid with them. However, the payment model can be controversial outside the field – and Wheaton College, in Massachusetts, was sued for it -- because the study abroad programs students attend are almost always less expensive than home school tuition at American private colleges, leading to perceptions that colleges are pocketing the difference.

In reality, Beaulieu said, the payment model may be at risk because of its costs to institutions. Despite perceptions that study abroad becomes a profit center under this payment structure, he said, colleges with the home tuition and fees model actually end up subsidizing study abroad at a certain percentage (since institutional aid is portable).

“I think many institutions are actually reviewing whether or not they can continue that kind of model or are considering not going to that model,” he said.

Perhaps most controversial would be limitations on financial aid’s portability. Beaulieu cited the case of one college that recently revoked the transferability of merit aid to study abroad programs, only to reinstate it for current students, at least, after students protested that the scholarships’ language stipulates that the awards are transferable to education abroad. Beaulieu didn’t name the college in question, but Brandeis University’s student newspaper, The Justice, features an article on just this set of circumstances.

Beaulieu’s two co-presenters offered very different perspectives from different types of institutions. Stephen DePaul, director of global initiatives for the University of Texas System, talked to seven colleges within Texas, public and private. “The response I got most often in terms of what impact is it having on you right now is ‘none’ or it’s ‘too soon to tell,’ ” DePaul said.

Something called a “flexible hiring freeze” at the University of Texas – “I’m sure it was one of my fellow attorneys who came up with that term” – could potentially have an impact on hiring for international positions, DePaul said. What Texas colleges have seen is a “tremendous transfer” in interest from study abroad in Spain (the most common destination for the state’s students) to less expensive programs in Latin America, especially Mexico. Faculty leaders for study abroad programs have cut some of the extras (certain excursions, and bonuses like Lonely Planet guides for every student), and there’s been a renewed focus on consortium arrangements and student exchange agreements, the latter being “a neglected part of the portfolio of programs at many of our institutions.”

Reciprocal exchanges, while cost-effective for students, had “fallen out of favor” because of the lack of student and housing services and administrative challenges in maintaining them, DePaul said. “It’s not necessarily an innovation -- I know there’s nothing new under the sun -- but these options have been dusted off at public schools recently.”

DePaul pointed out, too, one big factor in study abroad’s favor – the strengthening of the dollar against many world currencies in recent months.

Martha Johnson, interim director of the Learning Abroad Center, at the University of Minnesota, surveyed the Big Ten institutions. “I was surprised at some of the feedback being not really much yet,” Johnson said. At Minnesota, they’re budgeting conservatively, for a 10 percent downturn. Yet, Johnson said, “There frankly isn’t a financial crisis for every student. We know that’s the case because this spring we had no downturn in numbers.”

The presenters did note that while study abroad offices may or may not be hurting, their host institutions are. Johnson stressed that study abroad officials need to be proactive in communicating any effects of institutional cuts on study abroad operations. “In general, as a field we don’t like saying if this is the choice the university makes, our numbers will go down. I will run less programs and you as the leadership of the university need to know that,” Johnson said. “We’re terrible at that as a field.”

Later in the session, Johnson also put in an appeal for study abroad offices to think twice before cutting international travel. “I think we should be a bit cautious about immediately cutting travel. It indicates that international travel is not necessary to our jobs and it is,” Johnson said. “We have a perception issue that is a problem and this is not a time to reinforce it.”

Audience members brought up other issues pertaining to enrollment management and study abroad, including interest in freshman study abroad as a strategy to increase institutional enrollment without building dorms. Trooboff, of CIEE – which runs a “gap year” program for new high school graduates who want a year elsewhere before enrolling in college – said that while he thinks more colleges will add freshman study abroad options over the next 5 to 10 years, it won’t happen quickly because the programs are so complicated to manage. He noted, too, “It’s interesting that most freshman abroad programs are not run by the study abroad office. Most freshman abroad programs are run by the admissions office.”

Stephen Ferst, the new director of institutional relations and development for the Education Abroad Network, questioned why so much doom and gloom, given that during past recessions study abroad growth has slowed, but overall numbers have not dropped, and that professionals in the field by and large aren’t reporting enrollment declines. “Maybe there’s posturing but I think for the most part numbers are gong to be up or flat this year,” said Ferst. “Education is always seen as a way out of a recession.”

Ferst did raise the possibility of thinning the number of programs, in Florence specifically – “I’ve been railing about too many programs in Florence forever,” he said in an interview. “The biggest problem with too many programs is the rise of mediocrity,” he said, with students flocking to programs that seem like they’re easier, or more fun.

“Perhaps we should be thinking about consolidation,” Ferst said. “If two directors would just get in a room and say, you know what, we could do this, we could cut some administrative costs and both come away with a stronger program financially, academically. ... Sometimes, it’s a win-win.”


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