Employers say that international experience matters in hiring decisions. Chief executives fret that today’s graduates lack the skills to succeed in a global economy. Even the U.S. secretary of education, Arne Duncan, in recorded remarks to the annual conference here this week of Nafsa: Association of International Educators, called global education a must-have.
"In the 21st century," Mr. Duncan said, "a quality education is an international education."
For all the talk, you might be tempted to think that every American graduates from college with a diploma and a well-stamped passport. The reality is far different. Study-abroad participation remains persistently low; less than 10 percent of all undergraduates go overseas.
The rates are even lower among the students who increasingly populate the country’s college classrooms — black and Hispanic students, and those who are the first in their families to go to college. While national data are not collected on study abroad by income, surveys of international educators consistently rank cost and lack of funding for students as among their greatest concerns.
And a 2012 report by the American Council on Education said that American colleges have actually taken a step backward in certain key areas of campus internationalization: Fewer colleges today require students to take courses that emphasize global perspectives as part of their general education, and the number with mandatory study of a foreign language continues to plummet.
The trends deeply worry those who believe that international experience is an imperative for all graduates. "It’s a moral issue," said Martin Tillman, a higher-education consultant and longtime expert on career development and international study. He’s leading a session on Friday at the Nafsa conference on economic inequality and the growing gap in access to international education.
Given the employability advantages that can accrue to students with such expertise, Mr. Tillman said, American colleges risk producing a generation of global haves and, mostly, have-nots.
He and others argue that efforts to increase study-abroad numbers like Generation Study Abroad, an initiative to double overseas study by the end of the decade, must concentrate on low-income and first-generation students and those from racial and ethnic minorities.
"What if the result is to double the number of the same population that already goes abroad?" Mr. Tillman said. "If we merely have 600,000 upper-middle-class white women going abroad, what will we have accomplished?"
Expense or Investment?
Daniel Obst, deputy vice president for international partnerships at the Institute of International Education, the nonprofit group that is spearheading Generation Study Abroad, said diversifying international study is an important part of the effort. The institute just announced a round of scholarships for students at colleges that are seeking to improve access in study abroad. Almost every grant application singled out the need to especially serve first-generation college students, Mr. Obst noted.
The University of California at Irvine, one of the grant winners, has started an ambassadors program that sends students who have previously gone abroad to talk to community and student groups, including Upward Bound and nearby high schools where family incomes are low. At least half of the 14 ambassadors are on Pell Grants themselves, said Marcella J. Khelif, associate director of the study-abroad center at UC-Irvine.
Colleges may sometimes make the mistake of thinking that there is a single solution to improving diversity and inclusiveness in study abroad, said Andrew Gordon, president and founder of the Diversity Abroad Network, a consortium of higher-education institutions, government agencies, and study-abroad providers focused on the issue.
In reality, the problem is complex and so too must be the response. For example, a minority student at a majority-white institution may not respond to the idea of study abroad as an opportunity for cultural immersion because, for him, just going to college may be an "extreme cultural experience," Mr. Gordon said. That pitch also could fall on deaf ears for a student who is the first in her family to go to college. If educators can’t articulate the real-world value of overseas study, Mr. Gordon said, it may be seen as "an expense, not an investment."
‘A Speeding Train’
But Fanta Aw, Nafsa’s president, said if colleges cling to the notion that the way to internationalize is to send students to study overseas for a semester or a summer, they will continue to graduate few with global skills. Educators, for instance, have been slow to embrace international-service learning, viewing it as insufficiently academically rigorous. Still, students love it, and it gets them abroad, said Ms. Aw, who is assistant vice president for campus life at American University, in Washington, D.C.
The real push, however, has to be in home-campus classrooms, Ms. Aw argued. "Even if we double the numbers, most students will not go abroad," she said. "The place where there is the opportunity to make the greatest inroads is the internationalization of the curriculum."
Such a strategy, Ms. Aw pointed out, also can make use of a critical asset on many American campuses: the large and growing numbers of international students in the United States.
Changing the curriculum has been a key part of what Winston-Salem State University, a historically black college in North Carolina, has done to bring more international perspectives to its campus. The institution was able to use federal grants to help professors develop internationally focused courses and short study-abroad trips. Faculty members have taught a course that links Winston-Salem State students with their counterparts in India via videoconferencing and have taken classes abroad to China and Brazil.
Before the effort, the university sent about 15 students abroad each year, said Joti Sekhon, director of international programs. Now it averages about 45 annually. "It’s small but meaningful for us," she said after a Nafsa session.
Ms. Aw said global labor demands, combined with changing demographics in this country, mean that educators can no longer afford to be complacent in preparing internationally minded graduates. "This is a speeding train," she said, "and we have to get out in front of it."