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Study Abroad

Study Abroad Programs Today, Living Arrangements Study Abroad Curricula and Locations, Future Developments

Until the 1970s, study abroad programs for American college students mostly followed the general education/liberal arts model that was pioneered in the 1920s by the University of Delaware, and later by Smith College. More recently, significant shifts in international involvements, in U.S. higher education, and in the characteristics and interests of college students have greatly altered the aims, programs, and clienteles of study abroad. The model of sending students (mainly female) to western Europe, typically for an academic year and primarily for foreign language and culture learning, has largely been abandoned.

The multipolarity of the world today, by expanding the demand for cross-culturally competent professionals in an increasingly globalized economy, is influencing the new shapes and goals of study abroad. Learning a foreign language has eroded as an aim of study abroad as the United States has become more than 30 percent Hispanic, and as English has become the new lingua franca of the world. Moreover, a study abroad experience is no longer seen as mainly for private college students, but as an essential foundation for international careers–and most careers now are international in their contexts, content, or dimensions.

Study Abroad Programs Today

Probably the main characteristic of the study abroad programs of U.S. colleges and universities is their diversity. There is no typical program. Students in an increasingly wide array of majors seek to study abroad and to pursue coursework while abroad that counts toward their major, whether business, sociology, environmental engineering, or nursing. Small wonder that the foci of study abroad programs are correspondingly diverse.

Driving this diversity, as well as contributing to it, are two additional and interrelated factors. First, the concern of students to enhance their professional qualifications for their future careers leads them to prefer short-term programs (a few weeks or a summer) over longer ones, such as an academic semester or year. Job concerns also make internships and work placements abroad attractive to American students, and programs with a thematic, rather than general education, emphasis, are preferred.

The second factor affecting diversity is the growing appreciation of the importance of cross-cultural skills (though not foreign language competence) in both the domestic and international arenas on the part of employers, students, and faculty. U.S. businesses operating across borders increasingly recognize the need for staff who can communicate, even if only in English, with people from other cultures and countries. Study abroad programs designed to enhance cross-cultural skills bring new goals and strategies to the experience. More programs are located in countries and regions other than the traditional western European ones; and more include experiential learning, immersion in the host culture, and community service as important vehicles for cross-cultural learning. These programs also tend to give more encouragement to independent study and to interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary studies than do the more traditional programs.

As already emphasized, there is no typical program of study among the study abroad programs of U.S. colleges and universities. This should be viewed as a plus rather than an inadequacy, reflecting as it does an important flexibility and pragmatism on the part of U.S. institutions. American universities have become more "user-friendly" to academic programs abroad taught in English, partly because the language has become a dominant factor in the globalization of the economy worldwide. In addition, countries seeking to attract more foreign students want to design programs geared to their needs and interests–whether it be English as a second language (ESL), shortened MBA programs, or post-degree job counseling and opportunities. The combination of more and more academic work offered in English, and the move worldwide towards an academic credit and transfer system comparable to the Educational Credit Transfer System (ECTS) of the European Community (EC) has attracted more U.S. study abroad students to nontraditional destinations.

Paralleling the widening of study abroad destinations has been a shortening of the time spent abroad: the percentage of students studying abroad for more than a semester dropped from 18 percent in 1985 to 10 percent in 1995. Whereas it is widely agreed that longer is better, the conflicting truism that something is better than nothing increasingly prevails. It is ironic that the shorter period that U.S. students spend studying abroad reflects a greater student and faculty appreciation of its importance as part of a quality undergraduate education. For students who must forgo part-time work to afford college or whose family situations or degree requirements (such as engineering majors) preclude more than a short time abroad, the increase in one-to four-week study or intern options abroad provides an opportunity for foreign study that would not otherwise exist. A significant trend in U.S. study abroad is that more and more colleges and universities integrate the academic work students do abroad into their degree programs. This is fundamental to increasing participation and affirming the academic contribution of study abroad.

Some U.S. institutions are developing creative ways to enable students to have an international experience despite existing deterrents. Some universities offer study abroad opportunities in the sciences to second semester sophomores who cannot leave campus their junior year. A few institutions offer on-line coursework from the home campus to students studying abroad who require specific courses not available in their study abroad program. Another strategy, exemplified in a course (Cultural Codes in Communication) taught at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst involves the professor and a professor colleague at a university in Finland showing the same film clips on Finland and the U.S. to their respective students. This program does not involve study abroad in the sense of the geographic move, but does involve direct contact with people in another country, focusing on cultural differences and stimulating international learning. The vastly different reactions of the Finnish and American students illustrates how the culture of each nation shapes how they look at the clips. The lively Internet communication that ensues between the Finnish and U.S. students is an integral part of the cross-cultural learning experience.

While the study abroad programs of U.S. colleges and universities share many features, they do tend to be of two markedly different types. One wants its students to be as integrated as possible into a cooperating or "partner" institution abroad, and, with appropriate pre-departure preparation, to mostly fend for themselves. In this type of program, students pay little or no more than for the same period at their home institution. The second type of program tends to provide special academic advising for the U.S. students, extra excursions for them, supplementary assistance with their housing, and day-today mentoring on top of what is offered by the host institution abroad. The first program type is quite similar to the EC's Socrates/Erasmus student exchange program in the goals of student integration into their host institutions abroad, little extra cost, and little special assistance by the sending institutions. The second program type aims to respond to the concerns of the kinds of students–and their parents and home institutions–that enroll in them. To a large extent, private college students, their parents, and their sponsors tend to look for special assistance, going well beyond what local university students may receive.

Living Arrangements Study Abroad Curricula and Locations

U.S. study abroad programs are increasingly diverse in their curricula, living arrangements, and locations. More and more programs offer a so-called full curricula that includes many of the traditional academic disciplines. Those that focus on language, culture, and social science subjects tend to be in foreign language countries, especially those of the less commonly taught languages in East Asia, North Africa, the Middle East, and eastern Europe. Living arrangements vary from residence halls, home stay, and apartments to such accommodation as the students arrange for themselves. Since 1990 U.S. students have more and more sought to make their own housing arrangements, usually helped by local staff.

The greatest diversification has been in study abroad program locations. Although the largest portion are still in western Europe, few countries are overlooked or left out, other than those with severe unrest or other conditions that may threaten students' safety. Shifts in international politics and economic conditions may significantly affect program locations. Thus, post-normalization China, post–Velvet Revolution Czechoslovakia, and post—cold war Africa have become more attractive U.S. study abroad destinations.

Future Developments

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, there were developments underway internationally, especially in western Europe, that were likely to affect the priorities in curricula and country sites of U.S. study abroad programs. In the Bologna Declaration of June 1999, twenty-nine European countries pledged to reform the structures of their higher education system to include a common framework for degrees and a convergence of their systems, possibly with degrees similar to the U.S. system. These reforms should facilitate increased mobility and cooperation, not only among European higher education institutions, but also with institutions in the United States and other regions worldwide. Just as globalization has created an increasingly borderless world, so this growing interchange can increase commonalties among higher education systems.


BURN, BARBARA B., ed. 1991. Integrating Study Abroad into the Undergraduate Liberal Arts Curriculum: Eight Institutional Case Studies. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

BURN, BARBARA B.; CERYCH, LADISLAV; and SMITH, ALAN, eds. 1990. Study Abroad Programmes. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

DAVIS, TODD, ed. 2000. Open Doors 1998–1999: Report on International Educational Exchange. New York: Institute of International Education.

HOFFA, WILLIAM, and PEARSON, JOHN. 1998. NAFSA's guide to Education Abroad for Advisors and Administrators. Washington, DC: NAFSA Publications.

MARCUM, JOHN A., and ROCHNIK, DAVID. 2001. "What Direction for Study Abroad? Two Views." Chronicle Review XLVII (36):7–10.

SCHNEIDER, ANN IMLAH, and BURN, BARBARA B. 2000. Federal Funding for International Studies: Does it Help? Does it Matter? Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts International Programs Office.

SCOTT, PETER. 1998. The Globalization of Higher Education. Buckingham, Eng.: Open University Press.


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