Study Abroad: Not Enough of it, and It’s Mostly Rich Kids

The Institute of International Education recently released Open Doors, its report about the state of international education, or study abroad, around the world. There are several trends worth discussing here, in particular an increase in the number of students studying in foreign nations, but in general it appears study abroad isn’t that common. It’s mostly just rich kids doing it, and a whole lot of students (at least the American ones) aren’t even learning a foreign language when they go to school in another country.

The report, the organization’s first since 2000, indicated that there’s an upward trend in students studying abroad. In the 2012-13 year some 289,408 American students were studying in foreign countries. That’s a 2 percent increase from the pervious year and the numbers are now at a record high. But it’s still pretty uncommon. Only 9 percent of American undergraduates got any international education.

This is in comparison to students from abroad, who travel and study in foreign countries much more often than Americans. There are some 886,000 now studying in the United States, an 8 percent increase from the previous year. Foreigners make up 4 percent of U.S. college students.

The United States is the top destination for international students who study abroad. It hosts more of the world’s college students than any other country in the world. Half of international students studying in the U.S. come from China, India, and South Korea.

Interestingly, while more American students are studying in Asia than in the 2000 report–5 percent are studying in China and 2 percent are in Japan–traveling far away to explore radically different cultures and learn a new language is pretty rare. The top destination country for Americans studying abroad is… the United Kingdom (other top countries include Australia and Ireland). That’s a trip that, frankly, hardly seems worth the cost.

Tourists

And the cost seems to be pretty high, perhaps explaining why the experience isn’t more common. While the Institute for International Education explained that “in today’s increasingly globalized workplace [9 percent of Americans studying abroad]… is far too low,” because “international experience is now one of the most important components of a 21st century resume” the strategy for increasing participation seems a little weak.

A representative from the U.S. State Department Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs discussed a program, the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program, that exists specifically so that low income students (those receiving Pell grants) can get money to study abroad, but this is still likely to remain pretty uncommon. Children from low-income families don’t study abroad for the same reason their families didn’t take a spring vacation to France when they were kids: traveling to foreign countries is really expensive.

The organization, while it discussed the importance of “increasing” the number of low-income Americans who had the experience of traveling about in college, didn’t know what percentage of American college students studying abroad currently get Pell grants or were otherwise designated as coming from poor families.

Check out the organization and its report here.

[Note that international education here didn’t just mean the traditional junior year abroad. It also included graduate students studying in foreign countries and international students who went to the United States for four years to earn a bachelor’s degree. It also included people who didn’t even earn academic credit abroad and may have taken a semester off of college to work or volunteer abroad.]

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer