Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Economy and Study Abroad

Study abroad advocates are worrying whether the sliding world economy will have a significant impact on study abroad programs at U.S. universities. At Simpson, it appears to be putting the brakes on student willingness to spend time outside of the country as part of their studies.

The Institute of International Education says the past 10 years have seen phenomenal growth in study abroad among college students — from about 100,000 in 1996-97 to 241,791 in 2006-2007. We've seen similar growth at Simpson during that decade, but since then the question here is whether the numbers are going to hold out.

The initial figures aren't looking positive. Our popular May Term program has seen a precipitous drop in international travel over the past couple of years. Nearly 280 of our 1,500 students went abroad in May Term 2007, but that number fell to 197 last year and looks to be around 170 for this coming term.

We've had to cancel several trips for this spring due to low enrollment, and it appears that the only May Term excursions with guaranteed high interest among our students are those going to the United Kingdom or exotic warm-weather locales (such as a course that will travel this spring to the Galapagos Islands).

I've taught four study-abroad courses in Europe since 2001. Until this year, these all drew between 31-37 students. This year's course to France has only 9, a number secured only with intensive recruiting and budget cutting from our original plans. 

To be fair, we've beefed up semester study-abroad opportunities. In addition to our long-running programs in London and Germany, we've started or about to start programs in Thailand, French Polynesia and Spain. But my sense is that not enough students are flocking to those opportunities to offset the drop in May Term travel interest.

We'll be investigating what other colleges and universities are reporting  for their international education programs. For what it's worth, IIE says that in 2006-2007 (a year, remember, when terms such "mortgage meltdown" and "credit default swaps" and "economic bailouts" weren't in common usage):
  • The number of students studying abroad was up 8 percent from the year before. But Iowa students, who tend to be more frugal with college education, actually went abroad in slightly fewer numbers than in 2005-2006.
  • Nontraditional study abroad locations were rising in popularity. The big gainers among destinations in 2006-2007 were Ecuador, South Africa, Argentina, China and India.
  • The biggest losers among destinations were Australia, Mexico and Costa Rica.
  • The United Kingdom remains, by far, the most popular study abroad destination, followed by Italy, Spain and France. Almost half of all U.S. students who went abroad in 2006-2007 wound up studying in one of those countries.
One standout statistic that deserves greater attention is IIE's finding that 65 percent of those going abroad are women. Why isn't study abroad more popular among men?

1 comment:

  1. I think we are hitting the ceiling on cost/benefit for short term study abroad. We need to re-think the experience. My guess is that we could pair with NGOs and develop short-term study abroad that are longer and cost far less than the $4,000+ we are now charging. Probably less in-country travel, fewer tourist sites, etc. Think service-learning, hostels, churches, and home stays.

    I'm interested in hearing about these kinds of experiences at other institutions.



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