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Helping Our Students to Study Abroad: Trends and Advice

By Christine A. Farrugia — February 05, 2015 5 min read

The profile of U.S. study abroad is changing. Today a more diverse range of students are studying in more destinations and through innovative programs that fall outside of the traditional model. Being aware of these trends can help us understand what motivates students to go abroad so we can encourage and support them. By beginning the exploration of other countries in elementary school, we build on students’ natural curiosity about the world around them. Short-term high school experiences abroad can seed interest in longer, more in-depth study at the postsecondary level. Christine A. Farrugia, Senior Research Officer, Institute of International Education, shares some of the latest trends and her advice.

According to Open Doors,®* 289,408 U.S. higher education students studied abroad from their home institution in 2012/13, an increase of 2 percent over the previous year, and continuing a trend of slow growth (between 1 to 3 percent per year). The high school rate of study abroad remains steady at less than 1 percent. However, against this backdrop of slow growth, there are pockets of strong growth among certain students and in certain destinations and types of programs.

New Students: STEM majors are the fastest growing group
At the higher ed level, students majoring in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are driving the growth in U.S. study abroad. For the first time ever, STEM majors outnumber study abroad students in other major fields: In 2012/13, they accounted for 23 percent of study abroad students, followed by students majoring in social sciences (22 percent) and business (20 percent).

Over the past fifteen years, study abroad by STEM majors has grown substantially, outpacing growth in other fields. Contributing to this growth is an increasing awareness by students and faculty advisers of the career-related benefits of global experiences, as well as increased efforts by STEM programs to provide more flexible requirements and short-term study abroad options that can be easily integrated into tightly structured STEM curricula.

This growth is likely to continue as more U.S. students are projected to major in STEM fields. This means that study abroad programs will need to provide more options that align with the structured curricula of STEM programs, including engineering courses abroad taught in English.

New Destinations: Asia and Latin America are rising
Asia and Latin America are the new hot spots for U.S. postsecondary students studying overseas. While over half of these students head to Europe, growth in study abroad in Asia increased by 23 percent and in Latin America increased by 13 percent.

Student interest in studying in Asia has increased along with the region’s economic rise. China rose to the fifth leading study abroad destination for U.S. postsecondary students in 2006/07 and has held that position every year since. Initiatives such as 100,000 Strong in China have increased the number of U.S. students (K-12 and postsecondary) in China by promoting it as a destination for study abroad, as well as student research, internships, language study, study tours, and other forms of non-credit education. But Asia’s popularity among U.S. students is not just about China. Japan, India, and South Korea are also among the top 20 destinations for U.S. students.

The strong economic, diplomatic, and historical ties between Latin America and the United States, as well as the close proximity of these regions, contribute to student mobility throughout the Western hemisphere. Student interest in Latin America and the Caribbean is rising, with Costa Rica, Argentina, Mexico, Ecuador, and Peru all ranking among the top 20 destinations for U.S. higher education students in 2012/13. This trend will surely continue as the U.S. government focuses attention on increasing study abroad to Latin America through its 100,000 Strong in the Americas initiative.

New Programs: Non-credit education activities are growing in popularity
U.S. students are increasingly seeking out short-term work, internships, and volunteering abroad experiences that go beyond the traditional model. These non-credit activities provide students with numerous educational opportunities outside of the classroom. Students who work or volunteer in another country interact not just with professors and other students, as they might with traditional study abroad programs, but engage with workers and community members in a variety of settings.

Many U.S. undergraduate and graduate students are also gaining research experience overseas, either through structured research programs or through independent field work for which they do not directly receive academic credit. This type of overseas research provides students with valuable international experience and facilitates the development of global networks that contribute to the flows of knowledge across borders.

Advice and Resources
While overall growth has been slow over the past few years, the current trends indicate where students’ interests are rising and where to focus our energies toward expanding U.S. study abroad. A number of initiatives aimed at increasing the numbers of U.S. students abroad—both K-12 and postsecondary—have been launched in recent years, such as IIE’s Generation Study Abroad, as well as 100,000 Strong in the Americas, 100,000 Strong in China, and CSIET. These initiatives build on students’ existing interests in overseas study by providing information and resources to support schools, higher education institutions, governments, and partner organizations that are expanding and diversifying study abroad programs to make them more attractive and accessible to today’s students.

Additionally you can help students by increasing their understanding of the value of an international experience in various career fields as is happening in STEM. And where possible, integrate the study of geographic areas of most interest to your students into your classes. By tapping into students’ natural curiosity about the world at a young age, we can build a solid base from which to encourage them to go out and see it through study abroad.

IIE has just launched a teacher campaign as part of their Generation Study Abroad initiative. By joining IIE Generation Study Abroad, K-12 teachers gain access to news and networking opportunities designed to build the global educator community as well as resources to enhance instruction. IIE‘s A Student Guide to Study Abroad provides practical advice on study abroad for students, parents, and teachers.

Follow IIE, IIE Research, and Asia Society on Twitter.

* Data, infographics, and charts in this post are drawn from Open Doors®, produced by the Institute of International Education since 1948, with the support of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs since 1972.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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