Groundswell of support for increasing study abroad

Some 77,000 more students from the US will study abroad annually over the next five years as a result of a groundswell of support for the Institute of International Education or IIE's Generation Study Abroad initiative.

The aim is to triple that increase in numbers to reach a target of 600,000 students from the US studying abroad each year by 2020, the IIE told University World News.

Since the Generation Study Abroad, or GSA, initiative was launched last year, higher education institutions, study abroad organisations and other partners have pledged an additional US$185 million in support over the next five years to make study abroad accessible to all, the IIE announced at a summit in Washington, DC, last Thursday.

“We launched in March 2014 and in that short time, this has become a global movement – we have 630 committed partners, mainly in the US but also around the world, and we are engaged with social networks and governments, as well as colleges and universities,” Daniel Obst, IIE’s deputy vice-president for international partnerships, who is overseeing the GSA initiative, told University World News.

“The most exciting part is that 84% of US colleges and universities which have joined the initiative plan to create new scholarship programmes, especially for underrepresented students. We hope a lot of the dollars [raised] will go toward reaching new student populations.”

The financial commitments will be used to provide support to students and develop more study abroad programmes and add new destinations, Obst said.

Based on the current annual growth rate of 3%, the numbers studying abroad could be expected to rise to 375,000 a year by 2020, but with the commitments pledge they should rise to 452,000.

In its report on progress, Generation Study Abroad: Year one impact, the IIE says that of 2.6 million students earning an undergraduate degree each year, currently only 300,000 study abroad, a figure which the GSA initiative hopes to double.

Obst says one of the key goals of GSA is to diversify and make sure that participation is more representative of the overall higher education population in the US.

Key obstacle

“We know the number one obstacle is the cost to the individual,” he said. “Many surveys show that students feel they cannot afford to study abroad, so offering scholarship programmes is very important.”

Another key challenge, Obst says, is the lower representation of students from socio-economically disadvantaged families and from ethnic minorities.

In 2011-12, Black or African Americans made up 15% of students enrolled in higher education, but only 5% of students studying abroad; similarly Hispanic or Latino students made up 14% of enrolled students but 8% of students studying abroad; and American Indian or Alaska Natives made up 1% of enrolled students but only 0.5% of those studying abroad.

At the GSA summit there was a lot of discussion around finding innovative ways to increase participation in study abroad. These included rethinking how to market the idea to Generation Z students – those born after the Millennium – for instance, by using new channels such as social media platforms and new types of role models, such as YouTube personalities rather than Hollywood actors.

Since young men are hugely underrepresented – with 65% of those studying abroad being female – there is a need to engage them where they are in athletic departments and fraternities, Obst said.

“There is a lot of discussion around engaging diverse populations, how to market to them, form partnerships with different stakeholder groups, such as campus career and diversity offices, and how better to map study abroad to the curriculum, because it is often an add-on rather than being part of it,” Obst said.

He said there are a lot of innovative fundraising models, such as raising funds from local alumni, businesses or parents to support scholarships, and also interesting fee models, such as reducing or cancelling the fee for particular individuals studying abroad or charging a small study abroad fee to all students to provide a scholarship fund for those who can’t afford it.

Another aspect being explored at the summit was the role of the private sector, and how the GSA partners can engage with them to be advocates for study abroad – given that globalisation means graduates need global skills – and encourage them to provide internships or financial support.

More than 600 K-12 teachers have joined the campaign, recognising that it is important to build interest in studying abroad from an early age.

Obst conceded, however, that there is still much more to be done by GSA to reach its 2020 target. “With the pledges we would still fall short,” he said. “Our partners may need to scale up their targets and we need many more institutions to get involved.”