7 Signs of Successful Study-Abroad Programs

James Yang for The Chronicle

July 25, 2010

Interest in study-abroad programs has never been higher among American college students. In 2008 the American Council on Education and the College Board published a report documenting that a large proportion of students plan to study abroad and want their institutions to offer a wide range of international education opportunities.

So why do as few as 1.5 percent of college students travel overseas to study every year?

The answer involves a series of obstacles that prevent enthusiastic students from seeking the opportunities they desire. As the report states, "barriers to student participation are real, including security concerns, high cost, academic demands that accommodate neither study abroad nor other international-learning experiences, and lack of encouragement by faculty and advisers." Also, many colleges do not foster the international-learning experience. They may talk the talk but don't walk the walk; they construct many of the barriers that hamper students.

It's just a matter of time before those institutions find themselves at a huge disadvantage when recruiting undergraduates. A global college education is increasingly becoming a crucial part of being competitive in today's job market, and students are demanding it more and more. They are talking and blogging about "unfriendly" study-abroad practices and where to stay clear.

So what is a successful study-abroad program? What does a "study-abroad-friendly" university look like?

Here are my seven signs:

Support from both the administration and the faculty. If the administration supports international education, but there is no buy-in from faculty members, will students study abroad? The answer is yes, but not many. If faculty members support international education, but there is little or no administrative buy-in, will students study abroad? Probably, through a "decentralized" approach, or where there are many barriers, an "exit" approach. Many land-grant institutions, like the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and other universities, like the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, adopted the decentralized approach, whereby faculty members pioneered and paved the way for international-learning experiences long before the administration stepped up to support them. The exit approach is the most extreme: Students completely withdraw from the university in order to study abroad.

All in all, things tend to work out better when both administrators and faculty members are on the same page. Administrators have the power of finance, while professors have the power of influence. Where the two converge, there are bona fide results. In an ideal university, professors are globally minded, appreciate international experiences, and have opportunities to engage in the international-education process. Administrators are supportive through both actions and words.

Variety of program options. Nothing frustrates me more than colleges that don't allow their students to participate in study-abroad programs that are not their own, or make it very difficult for them to do so. They may restrict financial aid, withhold course equivalencies, and/or deny valuable academic credit. Colleges that encourage study abroad offer a portfolio of programs, supported by the academic departments, to meet students' needs. They also provide a degree of flexibility that allows students to individualize their potential experiences.

Preparation for risk. Colleges with long-term successful study-abroad operations prepare for the inevitable. They develop study-abroad programs carefully and have thorough application processes that involve judicial affairs, health services, disability services, the counseling center, and other key offices on campus. They also have appropriate health insurance, contingency plans, crisis-management protocols, policies, procedures, training, and orientations designed to promote health and safety throughout the international experience. They encourage teamwork and use the campus as a support network. Some successful universities, like Michigan State University, have even named an administrator to oversee the health, safety, and security of travelers.

Fair value, a fair price. Study-abroad-friendly universities are not always cheap and they're not always nonprofit, but they are usually open about their financial model and net gains. I read on a student's blog this year that an American college is going to charge $30,000 tuition to award credit for a $5,000 partner program run by another university. That college should be clearer and more open about its budget. Otherwise, it looks like a 600-percent markup to put its name behind some courses, which they neither develop nor teach.

Eastern Illinois University collaborates with higher-education institutions around the world to maintain quality study-abroad programs for students. We negotiate discounts for students and price programs at cost. While abroad, our students often encounter other students paying three or four times as much for the same academic experience.

Every department has options. Each college needs to connect international-learning experiences to academic needs. The University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, for example, has developed its well-known "study-abroad major advising sheets" to do that. Those sheets help students, academic advisers, professors, and study-abroad professionals match overseas programs with academic programs. They are built from study-abroad course articulations and shift the focus of study abroad from an "extracurricular" activity to a "scholastic" one. And the sheets do more than engage various people in a discussion; they help the college identify programming gaps in academic areas that lack study-abroad opportunities.

Students earn valuable credit. There is no standard for study-abroad credit. An American college may accept academic credit from language schools or institutes overseas based on its own criteria. Successful operations recognize and accommodate the "study" in study abroad. They put mechanisms into place that encourage students to take their courses seriously. Approved courses abroad replace major, minor, and general education requirements in their undergraduate-degree program or fulfill course work or practicum experiences at the graduate level.

A commitment to go green. Middlebury College awards "sustainable study-abroad grants" to assist students with research and projects related to environmentally friendly practices. It also has a Going Green guide, a Green Passport program, a carbon-offset program, and a comprehensive list of sustainable travel resources. We in higher education can't possibly be promoting global citizenship if we are inconsiderate of how international travel affects the environment. Wise colleges have an awareness, understanding, and concern about the global impact international visitors are having in communities around the world. They do their part in educating students and helping them reduce their possibly harmful footprint.


 Wendy Williamson is director of study abroad at Eastern Illinois University, author of Study Abroad 101 (Agapy, 2004) and co-founder of and AbroadScout.