The United States has long been the largest receiver of international students, dominating about 20% of the global market. However, the country has not been as successful in terms of sending students abroad. According to data collected by the Open Doors report, only about 1% of all United States college students study abroad during their collegiate experience. Granted, the number of Americans studying abroad has increased nearly threefold in the last two decades, rising from fewer than 100,000 students in the early 1990s to nearly 300,000 today. But, the number remains proportionally tiny and the opportunity to study abroad remains closed off to a vast majority of students, particularly those from minority and disadvantaged backgrounds. Figure 1 shows the racial disparities that exist in the U.S. study abroad population, with significantly fewer African American/Black and Hispanic/Latino students studying abroad than represented in the larger student population. Studying abroad can have many benefits for students and there are ways to expand access for those academically and economically disadvantaged.
Figure 1: Percent of U.S. Study Abroad Students by Race/Ethnicity, 2012-2013
Source: Data comes from NASFA
Why Study Abroad?
Many who participate in a study abroad experience often describe it as life changing. The opportunity to experience a different culture, interact with individuals from other countries, and overcome the challenges of living and studying abroad can bring a wide range of benefits. Surveys of those who have studied abroad suggest that studying abroad can advance one’s intercultural understanding, improve self-confidence, and become more self-aware.
Research also shows that the opportunity to study abroad is about more than providing students with an opportunity to experience a different culture, it has direct positive results on a student’s success in college and beyond. Data from UC San Diego, UT Austin, and the University System of Georgia suggests that students who study abroad graduate at higher rates than those who do not. Moreover, the Georgia report, which is based on a carefully designed 10-year study, found that study abroad had a positive effect on student GPA, particularly those students who entered college with low SAT scores.
Survey data from the United States and the United Kingdom also suggest that study abroad alumni believe that study abroad prepared them well for the workforce. The findings of both studies revealed that college graduates who studied abroad were more likely to be employed within six months of graduating; more likely to work in a foreign country; and, for most areas of study, most likely to earn a higher wage than those who did not study abroad.
Expanding Access: An Exemplar Program
Given the important benefits accrued through study abroad, many colleges have been working to expand access to a broad range of students; however, the success of such efforts remains inconsistent. One program of note is a collaborative effort between the Center for International Programs (CIP) and the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) at the State University of New York at New Paltz. The winner of the Institute for International Education’s (IIE) 2015 Heiskell Award for outstanding study abroad program, the SUNY New Paltz collaborative brings together staff from the two different units to expand access to study abroad for students who are academically and economically disadvantaged.
EOP is a state-funded initiative to expand access and provide academic support for students who do not meet general admission requirements, but show potential for success. To increase the number of EOP students who study abroad, the CIP and EOP staff work together to make EOP students aware of study abroad opportunities early in their educational experience. The staff collaborates to advise students about financial matters, expectations, cross-cultural adjustment, and scholarship opportunities for study abroad by providing tutoring and financial resource.
Of particular note is that study abroad is embedded in the support work provided to disadvantaged students, reinforced by peers, and supported through scholarships. In their first year, students in the EOP program are provided with an extra set of supports to bolster their academic success. As reported in their application for the award:
First-year EOP student seminars devote class time to international education opportunities, with assignments such as developing a four-year academic plan to include a study abroad experience. First-year students attend special workshops during which returned EOP study abroad students speak to students about their experiences. The EOP study abroad liaison surveys students to gather data related to students’ needs, and the international center provides a writing tutor for students who need assistance with their scholarship essays for study abroad.
Beyond the academic support that is provided, the institution has also worked to identify funding to support the EOP students. Since 2009, 30 EOP students have received funding from the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship fund, a national scholarship program supported by IIE to help students with financial constraints study in a foreign country. Beyond the Gilman scholarship, 35 students have received funding from other national and institutional sources.
The results speak for themselves. Since 2007, the CIP and EOP staff has collaborated to support more than 140 EOP students going abroad. Moreover, the six-year graduation rate for EOP study abroad participants is 96%, as compared to a 63% six-year graduation rate for EOP students who do not study abroad. In fact, the six-year graduation rate of EOP students exceeds that of general admission study abroad students (89%).
The success of the efforts at SUNY New Paltz illustrate that it is possible to expand access to study abroad for underrepresented groups. A key highlight about this program is that it is not a new program, per se; rather it was a new process that complemented the existing work of both offices. Below is a distillation of some of the key takeaways that might help others replicate this success on their campuses.
Having a shared vision or set of goals fosters shared commitment and helps focus and align activities. A key component of the success of the New Paltz program is that there is a sense of a shared commitment to increasing the number of student from disadvantaged backgrounds studying abroad. With the specific goal of increasing the number of EOP students who were studying abroad, all of the involved staff knew that their efforts needed to increase EOP student engagement. In launching a similar initiative, there needs to be shared vision of what is to be accomplished and this vision needs to be communicated to all involved staff.
Expanding the Team
Complementary to having a shared vision is having a shared team. One of the critical components of the success of this program is that there was a collective effort to achieve the vision. Offices did not point fingers when it came to the responsibility for acting. The directors and staff of both offices worked together and shared responsibility.
Mutually Reinforcing Activities
Because of the shared vision, the staffs at both CIP and EOP were able to create mutually reinforcing activities. This did not require a great deal of additional effort; rather they had to think strategically about building in activities to their existing work that would drive forward the achievement of their goals. This was about more than simply informing students of an opportunity. This was about creating an entire set of activities that got them excited about studying abroad and provided supports to overcome the barriers (real and perceived) that might exist.
Success builds success and the leadership at SUNY New Paltz wanted to ensure that the new efforts were actually producing the required outcomes. As such, they developed mechanisms to track a variety of measures to determine not just whether they were achieving their immediate goal (i.e., increasing the number of EOP students studying abroad) as well as ancillary academic benefits such as improved GPAs and completion rates. This demonstrated success makes it easier to justify additional resources for the program and the institution is now working to expand the model to develop collaborations with other offices that support disadvantaged students.
Tapping into Existing Funding
A common concern is that study abroad is financially out of reach for many students. In response, there are a growing number of scholarships being made available to assist students with overcoming this hurdle. The Gilman Scholarships, mentioned above, are just one example. Others can be found here. An important role of campus staff is to help students find the resources they need to make study abroad possible.
- How many students on your campus study abroad? Are the demographics of the cohort of students studying abroad similar to the general campus population?
- What barriers exist on your campus for students to study abroad? Do these barriers differ for different demographic groups?
- What data supports the existence of these barriers? How might you obtain this data?
- Who should be responsible for expanding access to study abroad for underrepresented groups?
- Are there ways to leverage existing resources to support more students studying abroad, particularly those from underrepresented groups?
- What steps might you take tomorrow to initiate change?
About the Author
Jason E. Lane is Senior Associate Vice Chancellor and Vice Provost for Academic Planning and Strategic Leadership for the State University of New York as well as associate professor of educational administration and policy studies, and Co-Director of the Cross-Border Education Research Team (C-BERT) at the State University of New York, Albany. He has been a member of the governing boards of the Comparative and International Education Society and the Council for International Higher Education and is an Associate of the International Association of Universities. He is currently a member of the governing board of SUNY Korea. His most recent books include Multi-National Colleges and Universities: Leading, Governing, and Managing International Branch Campuses (2010, Jossey-Bass); Universities and Colleges as Economic Drivers (2012, SUNY Press) and Academic Governance and Leadership in Higher Education (2013, Stylus Press).
Please e-mail inquires to Jason E. Lane.
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The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members, Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.