When a student came to him with syllabuses for a three-week, South-Africa based study abroad program billed by the American sponsoring universities as bearing eight credits, Eric Miller raised an eyebrow, and some questions.
The student “felt of course he should get that whole amount, but we weren’t so sure,” said Miller, the study abroad coordinator at Loras College, in Iowa. Similar questions have also come up, he said, when arbitrating the awarding of credit for intensive Spanish language programs.
Loras “just started doing January term classes this past January for the first time, and basically students are getting three or maybe four credits for a three-week experience,” Miller said. “It’s very intensive. Given that context, we have a hard time turning around saying someone can do a three-week experience somewhere else and get more than twice the number of credits.”
“My sense is that it doesn’t seem to add up,” said Miller, who, in subsequently soliciting feedback from the field via a listserv, received a wide range of responses. “Obviously some people think that it does, and I think what they’re saying is we’re not adequately rewarding people for the value of this in-country experience they’re having, that it’s really worth more. I think it is worth a lot, but I don’t see a credit justification.”
Short-term study abroad has grown significantly in popularity in recent years, with just over half (52.8 percent) of all American students studying abroad opting for programs lasting fewer than eight weeks, according to  the Institute of International Education.
Meanwhile, back at the home universities — where the faculty determine whether credit for summer or other short-term study abroad is awarded or not — officials report sometimes significant variations across institutions in those determinations, and some concern about the possibility of credit inflation. The variations potentially point to differing perceptions of short-term study abroad’s academic rigor or heft, and competing philosophies, for instance, about the degree to which to reward immersive out-of-class experiences that aren’t strictly academic with academic credit.
The range can be dramatic. In response to Miller’s recent call for feedback from the field, an overseas study abroad provider responded. According to Miller, this provider indicated that some students earn as few as three credits from their home institutions, and others as many as 12 — for the same program.
“You get this range. Our student goes [on a program] and is in a class with another student who can get more credits for the same experience. And maybe there’s not a good reason for that,” said Miller.
“In terms of the awarding of credit, I have seen great variation among institutions regarding how many credits are assigned to short-term study abroad programs,” Brian Whalen, president and CEO of the Forum on Education Abroad, a government-recognized standards development organization for the field, said in an e-mail. “Some might follow a practice of assigning credit according to how many classroom contact hours there are on the program, just as they would on the main campus. Other institutions adopt a practice of counting significant out of class experience such as guided academic excursions or supervised field work as contact hours. Still other institutions have adopted a different kind of assessment methodology based on their understanding of the distinctive learning environment on study abroad.”
While respecting the various approaches, the forum is working on a set of standards specific to short-term programs, which stress, among other things, transparency, Whalen said.
“My own institution” — Dickinson College — “for example, awards one credit for our five-week short-term summer programs based on our belief that the nature of the learning experience requires adequate ‘time on site’ in order for students to process the content from a critical perspective, relate it to their out-of-class experience, and demonstrate their learning,” Whalen said. At Dickinson, a typical semester-long course is likewise worth one credit: “We have determined as an institution that a short-term program abroad should carry one course credit, and no more, even if the contact hours might exceed what is the norm for a one-credit course.”
Speaking from the point of view of a study abroad program provider, Joanna Holvey Bowles, senior vice president at the Institute for Study Abroad (IFSA)-Butler University, said the amount of credit attached to its programs is determined by host institutions abroad in consultation with IFSA-Butler. “The seat time doesn’t matter like it does in the U.S., it doesn’t have the same connotation — ‘if you’re sitting in your seat for 20 hours a week, it’s worth X credit.’ But in the overseas system, it often just depends on the amount of content that’s going to be covered in a set course.”
Among IFSA-Butler’s various short-term summer programs, “You can see that there is quite a range, anywhere from six credits to as many as 12, which is probably the largest single designation of credit we have available for a summer program, and that’s at Cambridge University.” (This year’s Cambridge program , based on students taking three courses, each worth four U.S. credits, stretched for just over eight weeks, from June 26 to August 23.)
“We’ve also had students drop from that program because it’s so intense.”
‘So Many Hours a Week’
In Miller’s research, he found that many institutions use 15 contact hours=1 credit hour as a rule of thumb. Yet, there are differences in definitions of those hours, he said. Some colleges say, for instance, that if a student is in class 30 hours per week, they can earn two credits in that week abroad. Meanwhile, others say that for every hour of class time, another two hours of outside-of-class work is expected, and so they essentially grant one credit for every 45 hours, 15 in the classroom and 30 outside it.
“I would say if the student is in class 7 hours a day, they aren’t doing another 14 hours outside of class,” said Miller. “There’s just only so many hours a week.”
Meanwhile, there may be a downward pressure on the length of short-term study abroad programs. “I think programs are being market-savvy in the sense that if you have programs of a certain length” — three to four weeks, say — “you can have two or three sessions during a summer” and that many more students can participate (and pay), said Adrian Beaulieu, dean for international studies at Providence College. “How much the short-term program of that kind really allows for any kind of cultural immersion or cultural integration, I think that’s a concern of many people.”
Parallel to that, “there is a concern that too many institutions are being too liberal about [awarding credit],” Beaulieu continued. “That’s why some institutions are being a little bit more rigorous about clearly spelling out what they’re going to accept. There are institutions on both sides of that fence.”
Brandeis University, for instance, has a longstanding policy , set by faculty, requiring that summer courses taken abroad (and domestically, for that matter) for credit must last for a minimum of five weeks. Courses also can’t be taken at a language school.
Counter to national trends regarding short-term programs, “the majority of the growth that we have seen is in academic year study abroad,” said J. Scott Van Der Meid, the assistant dean of academic services and director of study abroad at Brandeis.