Fulbright's Good Fortune

October 30, 2009

The tough job market for college seniors and recent graduates has left millions of twentysomethings unemployed or underemployed and looking for work or some other way to occupy their time.

Among the alternatives that appear to be growing in popularity this fall: State Department-sponsored Fulbright fellowships to study, conduct research or teach English in 140 countries.

In all, more than 8,500 people submitted applications to the Institute for International Education (IIE) – the group that oversees student Fulbrights -- for 2010-11 awards ahead of last week’s deadline, a thousand more than applied a year ago. About 1500 student Fulbrights are awarded each year .

There’s no one reason for the rise, said Schuyler Allen, an IIE spokeswoman, though the state of the economy is “a contributing factor” in the uptick, but administrators and faculty who help students apply for the fellowship think the job market is the key reason why application numbers have grown so significantly in the last year.

Fulbright isn't the only post-graduation option seeing heightened interest this year. Graduate school applications are expected to be way up. Teach for America, a program with wide appeal and thousands of spots, saw applications soar to a record high last year and totals are on track to go even higher this year. The group attributes the growth to the weakness of the job market, as well as its stepped-up recruiting efforts.

“Students are generally casting their net wider for post-graduation opportunities,” said Michael Pippenger, Columbia University’s associate dean of fellowship programs. “Some are putting applying for fellowships into the mix in a way they might not have if the job market were stronger. Fulbrights are one of the options they’re looking at.”

Some students, he said, may have had “a seed of an idea of what it is they want to do intellectually” that might not have grown in an environment where English majors were easily getting $70,000 jobs in investment banking. But “the current state of economy may very well have encouraged some students to think more seriously” about their academic interests and, in turn, applying for Fulbrights.

Last fall, 48 Columbia seniors and graduates applied for the fellowship. This fall, 66 did. Barnard College had 16 applications last year and 27 this year.

Pippenger does not think, though, that the economy is the only reason more students are applying for the fellowship. “For a number of years we’ve been trying to get faculty more involved and engaged in encouraging students to apply, to tell them this kind of opportunity exists,” he said. “It seemed to be working even before [the economic downturn].”

Pitzer College, in Claremont, Calif., saw 67 students and graduates apply last year. This year, 79 applied, said Nigel Boyle, the college’s Fulbright adviser and a professor of political science. “For a college with a graduating class of about 250, that’s pretty substantial.”

Fulbrights and other opportunities providing support for work or study abroad have long been popular at Pitzer, but this year’s growth “seems to be a labor market phenomenon,” Boyle said. In particular, he is “seeing a large number of recent alums who are applying for Fulbrights and saying the economy is a factor.” Several applications this year came from recent alumni teaching in California public schools but looking for other options as the state makes dramatic budget cuts. A few others came from seniors hoping to teach but not sure they'd be able to get jobs in the United States.

Applications coming from the University of the Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., tripled from 6 last year to 18 this year. Bowdoin College students and alumni submitted 20 applications last year and 28 this year. Muhlenberg College's applications grew from 5 to 12. Franklin & Marshall College's grew from 5 to 11. Applications from Villanova University grew from 12 last year to 18 this year.

Jane Morris, director of the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships at Villanova and president of the National Association of Fellowships Advisors, said the economy is one reason why applications are up, but also pointed to efforts by the IIE to “get the word out to increase the numbers.” She pointed to more information sessions, better outreach to colleges and a more robust website describing the fellowship as important factors in drumming up applications.

In a statement, Alina Romanowski, deputy assistant secretary of state for academic programs, pointed to American foreign policy as a reason why applicants are interested in Fulbrights. “Both President Obama and Secretary Clinton have made clear that international educational exchange is a critical aspect of U.S. international engagement, and the Fulbright Program is consistent with this ‘smart power’ approach.”

Not all institutions saw more applications this year or think the economy played a major role in students’ decisions on whether to apply. Northwestern University, for instance, had 109 students and alumni complete the process last year and 109 again this year.

Sara Anson Vaux, director of the office of fellowships there, said the university’s efforts over the last decade to internationalize and expand its study abroad offerings have led to students becoming more interested in opportunities outside the United States, whether Fulbrights or other offerings. “As we’ve become more global in our outlook, the number of Fulbright applications has risen,” she said. Her office oversaw 47 applications in 2004 and saw that number rise with every application cycle until this year.

Though the economy may have been one reason why students thought of applying – more than 200 Northwestern students and graduates started the application process in June – Vaux said the realities of formulating a detailed and passionate plan for study or research may have weeded out students who were thinking of Fulbrights as a fallback plan. “We want our students to be sure they know what’s involved in applying,” she said, “and in actually carrying out the Fulbright.”

Noosha Malek, director for academic recognition programs at the University of Southern California, saw applications rise from 51 to 63. But, she said, “students didn’t state the reason they’re applying as being the economy.”

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