The following is by Mark Salisbury, director of institutional research and assessment at Augustana College, in Illinois.
The Institute of International Education recently announced a new effort, Generation Study Abroad, to double the number of undergraduates going overseas annually by 2020. It seems to have once again ignited the passions of international educators and colleges.
I say “once again” because, intentionally or not, the announcement coincided with the 10-year anniversary of the Lincoln Commission, an idealistic federal plan that called for one million college students studying abroad by 2016-17 and $125-million in federal scholarship funds. Despite President George W. Bush’s declaration of 2006 as “The Year of Study Abroad” and legislation based on the Lincoln Commission’s proposals passing the House of Representatives three times, this grandiose aspiration never got out of the harbor.
Although Generation Study Abroad already seems to have built some legitimate momentum among a diverse array of institutions, many a seasoned international educator has seen prior efforts fail to take flight (let’s also not forget President Jimmy Carter’s President’s Commission on Foreign Language and International Studies). But unlike in decades past, institutions participating in Generation Study Abroad now have a substantial body of scholarship that (1) explains the complex decision-making process that precedes a student’s decision to participate in study abroad and (2) identifies the conditions at an institution or within a program that improve student learning. The institute’s current and future institutional partners must apply this new knowledge about student decision-making and learning if they hope to succeed where others have failed.
With that in mind, here are three recommendations borne out of this body of work that will substantially improve the likelihood that Generation Study Abroad will reach its ultimate aspirations.
Know your audience when marketing study abroad to students.
Although we might know some students for whom studying abroad is truly transformational, for many others it is just another thing that they do in college. Marketing study abroad with a glossy brochure trumpeting the “study abroad is transformative” claim hits a sour note as soon as prospective participants start to interact with the wide range of students who have already gone overseas. Sure, some older students might appear different, but most of those interactions will reinforce the belief that transformation is uncommon and apparently reserved for a special few. If your students are like most and compare themselves to their peers, they are less likely to believe the transformational claim and begin to think that they aren’t the target demographic for study abroad, and/or that study abroad is more of an option add-on than a centrally important college experience. Telling undergraduates that study abroad will transform them is a little like telling a 5-year-old that eating their vegetables will make them big and strong someday. Although the assertion might be true, from the perspective of the person you are trying to convince, the argument simply doesn’t connect.
The assertion that studying abroad will make students more employable, although it may be more accessible in terms of students’ postgraduate concerns, is equally problematic. Students who study abroad are more likely to succeed professionally if and only if they can articulate to a prospective employer specific ways in which the international experience deepened their understanding of themselves and the world in which they will work, and they have substantive learning that they know how to apply in the context of their future profession. At the very least we need to be able to articulate to students exactly how studying abroad can give them this advantage. Then we have to make sure that studying abroad is integrated into their broader undergraduate experience so that students can learn to articulate their own story. Otherwise our marketing claims will fade into the backdrop of all of the other advertising pablum that students have long ago learned to ignore.
Create financial aid vouchers to pre-emptively remove the economic obstacle.
Too often institutions seem to think that students should ignore their worries about paying for a study-abroad experience until very late in the application process. The question of financing only gets answered after the student has looked at a range of programs, worked out how a study trip might fit into his or her curricular plan, applied to one or more of those programs, and waited to hear whether all of the credits would transfer. Of course this is not how human beings engage complex decisions that involve spending money.
If an educational opportunity might be too expensive without financial help and there are a series of procedural hoops to jump through before the financial question can be answered, a rational person will likely assess cost first and balk at the rest of it unless they are sure that jumping through the rest of those hoops won’t be a waste of time.
One way to pre-emptively solve the issue of cost is to create a system of financial-aid vouchers. Instead of waiting for individuals to apply for funds, this system allows an institution to take the issue of cost off the table from the very beginning. Furthermore, publicizing the existence of vouchers allows a different type of planning discussion between students and their campus advisers. Instead of asking a student if they have considered study abroad, advisers can ask, “How do you plan to use your study-abroad voucher?”
Collect institutionwide data to provide robust evidence of study abroad’s educational impact.
It is no secret that institutions will have to significantly alter the way that they facilitate study-abroad participation in order to double their numbers. In addition, to more effectively demonstrate the educational benefit of studying abroad, institutions will have to do better than just claim that learning happens or point to a couple of gee-whiz anecdotes. This means that the responsibility for gathering data on students who go abroad can no longer remain the province of the study-abroad office. If the institution wants to understand how students engage the possibility of studying abroad (and thereby understand how to increase the likelihood of students traveling overseas), the institution needs to be able to compare data from students who chose to study abroad and those who chose not to. Likewise, if the institution wants to be able to make the most effective claim about educational effectiveness, then the institution must have data from all students so that it can make similar comparisons.
This requires dedicated efforts from the registrar, institutional researchers, academic affairs, and other offices. Study-abroad offices must become advocates for better data and take a leadership role on their campuses to ensure that there is a system for gathering and using data to inform and improve.
Finally, even though Generation Study Abroad places a doubling of participation rates as the primary goal of this endeavor, the reason we all put our heart and soul into international education is because of the learning that we believe is critical for our students and our future. As this effort gathers steam, we have to stay focused on learning. Wouldn’t it be sad if Generation Study Abroad accomplished its participation goals and yet our students were no more globally competent than they are now?