Friday, February 20, 2009

Economy Hovers Over Abroad Forum

PORTLAND — The hallways and sessions at this week’s Forum on Education Abroad conference here are taking on the air of the ’92 Clinton campaign. One issue seems to overshadow most all conversations.

It’s the economy, colleagues.

One panel, moderated by Robert Guitierrez of the Institute for International Education, tried to convince dozens of attendees to discuss the many challenges facing study abroad programs in the coming years. But almost all talk turned to the impact the sinking economy is having and will continue to have in coming years.

Even with the dollar continuing to improve against foreign currencies, making study abroad less expensive for Americans, institutions are facing new economic challenges in mounting and maintaining program.

“The economic shift has moved from the students,” says Cornell’s Richard Gaulter, “because the dollar is doing better, to the institutions, which are now having to deal with budget cuts to programs across the board.”

Institutional cuts already are in evidence at FEA, where Brian Whalen, the organization’s president said that record attendance of 730 administrators, faculty and professionals would likely have been at 1,000 or more if institutions hadn't already cut travel funds to make the budget crisis many are navigating.

Some institutions have already seen significant dropoffs in study-abroad enrollments, as parents and students retrench in light of significant debt loads being taken on by many students simply to finish their degrees on campus. But several schools represented at FEA report increases in enrollment for overseas study programs, sometimes substantially so.

Regardless of whether their numbers are up or down, nearly everyone at FEA is looking with trepidation at the coming year as the recession deepens and the students and institutions face difficult choices.

Kim Tunnicliff, director of the international office at Augustana College in Illinois, says his school is seeing a small uptick in enrollments for its summer travel programs. It’s just a matter of more effectively selling the benefits.

“It's not a hard sell, particularly since we see more and more students who studied abroad in their experience,” Tunnicliff said. “So it’s easier to tell the high school senior and his parents that study abroad isn’t a peripheral luxury. It’s something that’s absolutely essential.”

While students and parents are still interested in study abroad, the challenge is in presented programs that create the greatest economic value. Many Forum conferees say their institutions are looking for to faculty-organized and -led programs in an effort to cut costs even further than the improving dollar would otherwise permit.

“It's time for us to be bold in stating the value of study abroad and to draw on the research that’s clearly demonstrated the impact of our programs,” Whalen said. 

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