Non-credit education abroad is on the rise, IIE says

US college students are pursuing a broader range of international educational activities despite not receiving academic credit for them, according to a new report by the Institute of International Education, or IIE.

“Students have a strong interest in experiential learning outside of the traditional classroom model, and not receiving academic credit does not appear to be deterring them,” said Dr Rajika Bhandari, IIE’s deputy vice-president for research and evaluation.

While educators surveyed in the IIE’s new report agree that the landscape of international experiential learning is growing, 'Non-Credit Education Abroad', or NCEA, activities are largely underreported, despite the fact that they advance the colleges’ mission of preparing their students to live and work in a global economy.

The IIE study found that students are pursuing a range of NCEA activities that go beyond non-credit work, internships and volunteer abroad, including conducting research or field work, presenting at academic conferences, competing in athletic events, and engaging in the performing arts.

IIE piloted the study, The World is the New Classroom: Non-credit education abroad, to begin to address this information gap, and to provide an initial profile of the students who are undertaking these experiential learning activities abroad, their destinations, specific activities, and travel planning methods.

Universities attributed the growth of Non-Credit Education Abroad activities to several factors, including:
  • • The increased availability of NCEA activities offered by the home campus (29%);
  • • Student interest in gaining international work experience (27%);
  • • The flexibility NCEA offers students to gain international experiences without impacting their studies (26%);
  • • Lower costs for non-credit versus for-credit education abroad (21%).

In addition, some campuses report that they are capturing more information about students who are going abroad for NCEA activities due to improved methods of tracking these experiences.

“The time is now for higher education institutions to have deliberate conversations about their study abroad policies and goals, and to take part in the dialogue to help standardise the categories and definition of Non-Credit Education Abroad so that we can capture this data and produce meaningful analysis to the field,” said Bhandari.

Redefining study abroad

Educators have indicated that students are already re-defining what it means to study abroad. The Open Doors® report shows that 304,000 US students received academic credit for study abroad in 2013-14, and for 19,000 of these students, their for-credit study abroad experiences included work or internships.

However, it is increasingly clear that more US students are also engaging in a range of additional experiential activities for which they do not receive academic credit.

To begin capturing some of these activities, IIE began surveying campuses about their students’ non-credit activities in 2012. More than 22,000 American students participated in non-credit work, internship and volunteer abroad experiences in 2013-14, according to Open Doors®.

But students who engage in non-credit work, internship and volunteer abroad activities only account for an estimated half of all students who pursue Non-Credit Education Abroad. Without an industry-wide consensus on the definition of NCEA and best practices for tracking NCEA, there is no way to record accurate, consistent data on all US students’ NCEA activities.

“The Generation Study Abroad® network of more than 600 commitment partners shows that there’s a movement to get more students to participate in study abroad, but the fact remains that only about 10% of US undergraduates study abroad for academic credit,” said Daniel Obst, IIE’s deputy vice-president for international partnerships in higher education.

“The good news is we know that students are, however, pursuing non-credit educational experiences outside of the United States. It will be critical for higher education institutions to capture the full range of students’ international educational activities, especially as colleges and universities form strategies to boost study abroad participation.”

In order to be prepared to provide international experiences that meet growing student demand, colleges and universities will need to actively seek information on what their students are already pursuing overseas.

In the report, IIE provides guidance to colleges and universities to define and better track their students’ non-credit activities, and to develop accurate counts and profiles of these students and their destinations.

IIE is hoping to encourage industry-wide discussion about reaching a common standard for fully documenting American students’ global experiences.

The World is the New Classroom reports information from 227 higher education institutions, based on data from the 2012-13 academic year.

Latin America is the most popular region for NCEA activities. Thirteen of the top 25 destinations were in Latin America. Mexico was the most popular destination among participating students (12%), followed by China (7%) and Nicaragua (5%). Institutions report NCEA activity in 129 countries worldwide, the report says.

Most reported that NCEA students participated in volunteer or service learning activities. Travel seminars or study tours were the second most popular NCEA activity, followed by research or field work, and internships or work abroad and religious missions. Language study was the least popular type of non-credit experience, comprising only 0.3% of reported students.

High participation by women

Similar to the demographics for US for-credit study abroad trends, there was a high NCEA participation rate among women (46%), undergraduates (76%) and students majoring in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, fields (28 %).

Among the students who self-identified their race or ethnicity, 71 % were white, and 10% were Hispanic or Latino(a). Asian-American and black student groups each represented 4% of reported NCEA students.

These ratios are similar to the US for-credit study abroad trends in 2013-14, where 74% were white, 8% were Hispanic or Latino(a), 8% were Asian-American, and 6% were black.

Almost half (43%) of the reported students pursued NCEA activities during the spring or summer breaks. Mid-semester breaks such as spring break were the second most popular time period (24%), followed by during the fall or spring semesters (16%). The winter break was the least popular time period, with just 7% of students participating in NCEA activities.

Forty-one percent of reported students participated in NCEA activities that were faculty-led or coordinated, while 11% of reported students independently arranged their experiences.

The reported proportion of NCEA activities arranged by students is particularly low because most higher education institutions do not have reliable procedures or platforms to capture trips that were organised without involvement from the home campus.

* The Institute of International Education will hold an online discussion on defining and tracking NCEA activities on 14 April 2016.