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Are study-abroad programmes vacation or education?

(iStockphoto)

(iStockphoto)

Study abroad? Seems like a no-brainer in today’s global economy. Indeed, colleges and universities have been selling the idea that a term overseas is an unparalleled chance for students to learn cross-cultural skills and pick up valuable credentials for the job market.

Among some academics however, there are concerns that these programmes are not meeting many of their goals. Research shows that cultural gaps are not being narrowed. Campuses are no more diverse, according to other studies, and costs continue to grow, now topping more than $60,000 per year for certain destinations.

 “We sell the idea that if students study abroad, they automatically return with some nuanced, marketable international skill set,” said Mark Salisbury, the director of institutional research and assessment at the US’s Augustana College in Illinois. “But, given the price tag, what if we’ve oversold the benefits?”

The number of participants and the revenues schools reap from some programmes have soared as students are attracted to the idea of improving foreign language skills and forming valuable international relationships. Too often, surveys show, the students who can afford these trips are already well travelled and from well-to-do families. Furthermore, foreign students are often segregated into their own living quarters, which undermines the ostensible goal of mingling with locals.  Finally, the high cost of the programs may not pay off with increased marketable skills, given the findings of a 2008 survey by Michigan State University which showed that a majority of employers put little stock in the study-abroad experience.

This has led many to question the purpose and value of study-abroad programs. Do they truly prepare students for an increasingly global world? Or do they merely represent an extended fun trip to another country?

Challenges ahead

Despite the worries raised by critics such as Salisbury, many who have studied abroad speak of it as a life-changing experience. By getting outside their comfort zone, students can experience personal and academic growth and they often seek out additional chances to live, study or work abroad, said advocates.

“It’s something that bites people and doesn’t let go,” said Spencer Jones, vice president of institutional relations and development for Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE), a non-profit that administers international programmes. Participants can refine foreign-language skills and be exposed to new instructional methods, he said.

Yet Jones conceded that there may need to be more accountability and reflection on what students gain. For example, just 22% of study abroad programs take steps to measure language acquisition, according to a recent survey by the Forum on Education Abroad, a non-profit association which develops and promotes good-practice guidelines for the field of education abroad.

Programs too frequently take their cues from students, said Lilli Engle, president and on-site director of the American University Center in Provence, which offers French immersion programmes.

“The primary motivator to study abroad now is not necessarily to learn, but instead to have a great adventure,” Engle said. “Study abroad programs are happy to oblige.”

Expenses soar

International recruitment has become a multibillion-dollar business. In the US, some 765,000 foreign students contribute more than $20 billion annually to the country’s economy through tuition and living expenses, according to the US Department of Commerce. A government panel in Canada recently recommended the country double its current crop of just over 100,000 international students by 2022 in order to capitalize on the CAD8 billion ($7.8 billion) in revenues and 86,000 jobs the sector created in 2010. In the small British city of Sheffield alone, international students at the local university contribute about  £120 million ($182 million) over a single year to the surrounding economy, according to one recent study.

The average tuition at a US private, non-profit university this past year is $29,056, according to the College Board, a not-for-profit, college-preparatory organization. International students generally pay full freight.

Some European, Canadian and Australian schools are just as expensive, or even more spendy.  At McGill University in Montreal, Canada, an international student studying business pays CAD35,019. Cambridge University in the United Kingdom charges the same student £20,790 ($31,616), and Australia’s University of Melbourne charges AUD33,344 ($32,483).

Financial assistance is not usually offered to undergraduates abroad; instead, personal and family contributions fill college coffers.

“It requires a certain level of price insensitivity,” Salisbury said. Translation: undergrads who could not afford foreign travel before college are not likely join a programme once there.

While participation has more than quadrupled worldwide since the early 1980s, according to UNESCO, the profile of students who study abroad are little changed.  Among Americans overseas, that profile is predominantly white women, usually well-off, and often already well-travelled, according to numerous studies which have examined US study-abroad programmes. This undermines the belief that those who study abroad bring diversity and democratization with them.

“We’re still interested in diversifying the campus, but we’re also interested in improving the bottom line,” wrote Jim Miller, past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, in a June, 2011, issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education.  NACAC is an Arlington, Virginia-based organization which helps students who are considering post-secondary education.

Study-abroad programs are not bringing much diversity to American campuses, either. More than 50% of all foreign students come to the US from four nations: China with a quarter of the total, trailed by India, Saudi Arabia and Korea, according to the most recent figures from the non-profit Institute for International Education, the world’s largest international education and training provider, which has offices around the globe.

Foreign students corralled

Once students are on a foreign campus, emphasis on language skills is increasingly unusual, several studies since 2009 suggest. Short-term programmes of one or two weeks, as opposed to a semester or academic year, are a growing trend, Jones said.

Engle described foreigners corralled into their own dormitories, taught in separate classrooms, and given little to no chance to mix with domestic classmates. She noted a proliferation of English-speaking programmes that cater to American students, allowing them bypass instruction in the local language.

“We know from surveys that students are shying away from home stays,” Engle said. “They want to go to a different country but don’t want to get too close to the people who live there.”

Students may also feel isolated from their local peers. Almost 40% of international students in the US, regardless of from where they hailed, said they had no close American friends, according to a study published last year in the Washington, D.C.-based Journal of International and Intercultural Communication.

Get a job

Study abroad has diversified away from traditional academic study. Students can dig for archaeological artefacts in Turkey for a summer at Minnesota’s St Olaf’s College, head to the Bahamas to scuba dive during spring break through State University of New York at Brockport or learn tango during a semester in Argentina for Texas A&M University.

All of these programmes offer students great life experiences, to be sure[KK1] , but it may be hard to sell employers on the sought-after job skills obtained along the way. According to the 2008 Michigan State University report, 61% of US employers put little to no value in the importance of studying abroad.

“A student wants to put on their CV that they’ve been to China,” Engle said. But, she added, “If their time there is not unsettling or different, there’s no reason to go.”

Katherine Bellows, executive director of the Office of International Programs at the US’s Georgetown University in Washington DC, would like to see study abroad "inserted into curricular structures" to provide a more robust learning experience that starts preparing students from freshman year and continues through graduation. Bellows also said students overseas should take more time to contemplate. "You must dedicate the time to reflect. It's essential to the learning process," she said. "It doesn't happen nearly as often as it should. Students are too often rushing from one place to the next to make space for reflection."

The primary motivator to study abroad now is not necessarily to learn, but instead to have a great adventure. — Lilli Engle