US: Economic crisis slashes US study abroad enrolments

A survey conducted by the Forum on Education Abroad and published this month has shown that one year since the onset of the current global economic crisis, fewer American students are traveling abroad to study.

The meltdown has had a negative impact on the education abroad programmes of 66% of 165 organisations that participated in the survey.

The survey of American private and public institutions as well as affiliated overseas universities and independent study-abroad providers sought to determine the impact of the economic downturn on education abroad programmes, enrolments and budgets.

The Forum is a global membership association designated the Standards Development Organisation for education abroad by the US Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission.

Forum President Brian J. Whalen blamed the recession directly for the drop in numbers: "I think it's clear that the economic crisis has had an impact on education abroad."

The survey found that private American and international institutions and organisations were rather better off than their public counterparts in the US in terms of the overall negative impact of the economic crisis on education abroad programmes.

For instance, while 85% of public universities reported a negative impact, the figure for private universities and colleges was 58%.

Study abroad enrolments were down at 59% of institutions and organisations while 39% reported that enrolment had increased (numbers are assumed to have held steady at the remaining 2%).

While between 49% of US private colleges and universities and 62% of affiliated universities and provider organisations based overseas reported decreases in study abroad enrolments, 69% of US public colleges and universities and 87% of US provider organisations reported enrolment declines.

The raw data, however, would seem to indicate that the enrolment decreases are relatively minor. Of those institutions or providers reporting reductions, 49% said participation was down between 1% and 20%, while only 4% had significant decreases of 30% or more participants.

The survey also found that most domestic and international institutions and organisations had not cut their education abroad programming budgets by more than 15% since last year, and 16% of respondents reported that their budgets had increased.

Only 6% of the survey respondents reported reductions in financial aid for this programming of 21% or more. Notably, a breakdown by institutional/organisational type revealed that public and private universities and colleges in the US made the deepest cuts.

Forum members were also asked to evaluate how the financial crisis was impacting on their students' choice of education abroad programmes. Forty-one percent of all the institutions and organisations indicated that most students were choosing less expensive and/or shorter-term options as well as electing to study in more affordable locations.

Since 1996, education abroad programming has grown by 150% in the US, underlining the importance colleges and universities have come to place on intercultural and global awareness. In fact, in 2008 it was reported that nearly two-thirds of post-secondary institutions had included international education in their mission statements.

While France, Italy, Spain and the UK remain firm favourites for American students, India, Ecuador, South Africa, Argentina, Japan and China have become increasingly popular destinations.

In an effort to maintain enrolment levels in current economic circumstances, domestic institutions and organisations - like the private education abroad provider CEA Global Education based in Tempe, Arizona - have responded by increasing scholarship values and reducing or capping various programme costs.

Explained CEA Global Education chairman Brian Boubek: "Educators realise that many students have a narrow window, and international education is critical to many students' academic programme and future career success." For this reason the provider, which is partnered with the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut, lowered programme fees in 2009.

Not all programmes can be so flexible. For instance, the Institute of International Education was forced in the spring of 2009 to cancel its flagship award programme, the Freeman Awards for Study in Asia.

That initiative was established in 2001 to increase American familiarity with Asian culture and to foster strategic partnerships in light of the increasingly global nature of the economy. By 2009, the programme had supported more than 4,000 American undergraduate students in East and Southeast Asia.

Although nearly a quarter of a million American students participated in education abroad programmes in 2007-08, almost twice as many foreign students came to study in the US. Of these, most came from East and Southeast Asia.