Quantity or Quality in Study Abroad?

Adam Weinberg writes that it is time to pay less attention to numbers of students and more to what they learn and how programs are structured.

May 8, 2007

More than ever before, American college students are studying abroad. They are going as part of classes or signing up for short term summer or semester-long programs. According to the Institute of International Education, 205,983 students studied abroad during the 2004-5 academic year, representing an increase of 144 percent over the past decade.

All of this has the potential to be good. Good for students, for American interests abroad, and for the world as a whole. International education can enhance our global competitiveness. Students who have traveled and studied overseas have greater capacity to learn languages and cultures. They are more confident and committed to their educational pursuits. They have more poise, self-esteem, autonomy, self-confidence, flexibility, maturity, self-reliance and improved social skills. Many of the capacities needed to compete in today’s “flat” world are acquired through international travel and immersion in other cultures.

As this work progresses, we would do well to remember that the desirable outcomes associated with studying abroad are neither automatic nor guaranteed under current conditions, nor can we measure success only by the number of students sent abroad. We need to be intentional and purposeful and might start by examining the difference between “high road” and “low road” models for international education.

Under low road models, universities and programs send college students into the world, with little preparation, for culturally thin experiences. Students make minimal effort to learn local languages or customs, travel in large groups, and are taught in American-only classrooms. They live and go to bars with other Americans, often drinking too much and getting into trouble. They see local sights through the windows of traveling buses. Far from experiencing another culture deeply and on its own terms, these students (at best) simply get the American college experience in a different time zone. It is worth noting as well that many of the study abroad destinations known as “fun” don’t even require language study and offer relatively minimal challenges to students’ sense of place and culture. These also happen to be the places with the highest percentage of students.

High road study abroad programs are developed to ensure deep cultural and language immersion. Students are oriented to understand and respect local customs and encouraged to take responsibility for projecting a positive image of Americans. High-road providers ensure that students become part of the culture by staying with local families and giving back to local communities. Examples include: the School for International Training, the School For Field Studies and the International Honors Program. Each of these organizations is working to create programs where students attend classes and participate in activities with local students and are taught by local staff who are paid fair wages and offer an inside view of the culture. Students learn that they return to the U.S. with an obligation to stay active, help others learn from their experiences, and push for better policies with regards to the developing world. These students become young intercultural emissaries, global citizens able to adapt and contribute to a complex world.

High road programs tend to be built with four principles in mind:

  • Commitment to scale and access. Currently, less than 8 percent of American college students study abroad, despite polling data that suggest most have an interest in doing so. Just as important, of that small percentage, less than 9 percent are black or Hispanic, even though these students constitute 25 percent of all college students. Stated differently, about 50 percent of the students who study abroad come from just 100 universities and colleges. We need to do better.
  • Emphasis on exposing students to less-traveled, less-understood destinations. Two-thirds of students who study abroad go to Europe. Only 15 percent go to Latin America, 7 percent to Asia, 3 percent to Africa, .5 percent to the Middle East. As geopolitical and economic power shifts, study abroad needs to keep up by including emerging regions of importance. Of course students should still study in Europe, but they should go on programs where they learn languages, are deeply immersed in cultures, and challenged by important themes in contemporary European society.
  • Plans for student “reentry” and opportunities for lifelong engagement. Students return from abroad filled with energy and excitement, often transformed by their experiences, but struggle to find opportunities and outlets for channeling their newfound energies. We need to harness and direct this energy towards lifelong learning, growth, and engagement in communities back home. There has been a tremendous amount of chatter within the higher education around civic education and engaging undergraduates. Harnessed correctly, study abroad may be as close to a solution as we will find.
  • Commitment to reciprocity. In this context, reciprocity might be defined as operating our programs in ways that strengthen the partners (e.g., community groups, individuals, and communities) we depend upon for the vitality of our programs. International education can either be perceived as one more thing the U.S. does at the expense of the rest of the world, or something that has economic and social benefits for host countries and communities. High road providers work in partnership with host communities. They bring needed revenues, networks, and other resources to these communities, while also maintaining a small and respectful footprint.

Some providers do this by paying attention to how they run their operations. They purposefully use local companies, keep the footprint small, and compensate local staff with good wages, benefits and professional development opportunities. Other providers are using community-based research and service-learning projects to connect students to local development efforts. The International Partnership for Service-Learning and Leadership is a good example.

But reciprocity can and should mean much more. For example, at the School for International Training, where I work, we recently signed an agreement with the Royal University of Bhutan (RUB). RUB is hosting students for a month on its campus. In return, SIT is using our network with 250 colleges and university to serve as a portal for RUB into American higher education. We arranged a tour for RUB administrators to visit their counterparts at a range of public and private universities. We are placing select RUB graduates into PhD programs. To make this happen (and bring things full circle) we are offering the universities who take RUB students financial aid for their students to come on our programs. Additionally, we are arranging for American faculty to spend time in Bhutan. In this form, reciprocity connects all the partners in loops that benefit American universities, study abroad providers, and community partners with clear intentionality and purpose.

All of this raises interesting questions that have yet to be fully explored:

  • Would it be OK if study abroad programs fall in short term numbers, but go up in quality? What would happen if the key indicator of success shifted from the number of participants to the magnitude of student learning outcomes?
  • How might universities create market demand for high road programs? Consistent with changes to accreditation, what would happen if universities required study abroad providers to document how programs meet particular learning outcomes and provided measurement of successes and failures?
  • How can we ensure greater access? This is an extremely important issue partly driven by price. We need to find creative methods to keep programs affordable. Part of it is also about moving study abroad beyond the liberal arts into the professions. We need programs for students who are studying nursing, hospitality, business, engineering and a range of other professions that reach beyond the liberal arts campuses.

Higher education is under growing pressure from politicians, parents and even our own accrediting agencies to better demonstrate value added for students, communities and the nation. Study abroad is a good example of how we can take something we are already doing and magnify the impact by being more purposeful and intentional with our desired outcomes and strategies for achieving them. In doing so, we can better position higher education to meet challenges around global competitiveness and public diplomacy, while also enhancing our humanitarian commitment to the world.


Adam Weinberg is the executive vice president of World Learning, where he also serves as the provost for the School for International Training.


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