The number of Americans who study abroad grew an anemic 1.3 percent in 2010-11, according to the latest "Open Doors" report by the Institute of International Education.
While the numbers, which are on a two-year lag, were no doubt influenced by the country's economic woes, the poor showing highlights the challenges colleges face in making study abroad an integral part of the college experience.
"Those numbers are not growing fast enough," says Peggy Blumenthal, senior counsel at the institute. "We're going to have to find other ways to internationalize the thinking of Americans if we're not going to get them all abroad."
According to the report, 273,996 students went abroad in the 2010 academic year. Europe remains the preferred region of study, drawing 55 percent of all students. But China has steadily inched up over the years and is now the fifth most popular destination, reflecting a growing interest in Asia's leading economy. According to a separate survey by the institute, if those students traveling to China for service-learning projects, research, and other non-credit-bearing work were added in, the total number of students who traveled to China in 2011 climbed to 26,000.
Mexico and Japan saw their figures plummet—by 42 and 33 percent, respectively. No doubt the declining interest was due to the continuing drug-related violence in Mexico and the tsunami in the spring of 2011 in Japan.
Short trips are increasingly popular among students. About 38 percent studied abroad during the summer, and 13 percent studied abroad for eight weeks or less during the academic year. Fewer than 4 percent of students spent the entire academic year abroad.
One exception to this trend is the number of American students pursuing their entire degrees abroad. According to the Institute of International Education's Project Atlas, which collects data on global student mobility, about 46,000 Americans took this path in 2011, up 4 percent from a year earlier. The top destinations are Britain and Canada.
Allan E. Goodman, the institute's president, says colleges would be mistaken to blame study abroad's sluggish growth entirely on economic conditions. Rather, institutions need to make the option more accessible to more types of students, like science majors and athletes, and offer it earlier than in the junior year. "We have the wrong paradigm," he says.
Institutions that have created such avenues say they've met with success. Angelo State University, in Texas, for example, has tripled its study-abroad numbers since 2007 by engaging faculty members in designing interdisciplinary, four-week, three-credit courses. While overall participation remains small, says Sharynn Tomlin, director of the Center for International Studies, the growth is significant. Hers is a regional institution where students don't travel much in general. (She recalls how taken aback one high-school senior was when Ms. Tomlin asked where she'd like to study abroad. "I don't ever want to leave Texas!" the student exclaimed.)
In addition to a significant amount of scholarship money, which pays for roughly half the cost of a trip, Ms. Tomlin says the key to success has been to get faculty members excited about the prospect, say, of teaching about the history of freedom in Europe or on biodiversity in Costa Rica.
"Some of our biggest critics," she says proudly, "are now our biggest supporters."