Study abroad should become the norm

Posted: November 18, 2015 at 10:20 am

The good news first: the number of international students in the U.S. and the number Americans studying abroad are both growing.

Then the not so good: only about 10% of American students will graduate from college having studied abroad.  This poses real questions about how well prepared our graduates will be to engage in an increasingly globalized economy.

According to the latest Open Doors 2015 report from the Institute of International Education, the number of international students in the U.S. grew 10 percent between 2013/14 and 2014/15, the highest annual growth rate in more than 30 years.  International students in the U.S. total about 1 million.

The number of U.S. students studying abroad grew 5 percent, the highest annual growth in five years.  Yet the total barely surpasses 300,000.

Mason is in the top 10 percent of all U.S. universities in both the number of international students and the number of students studying abroad. Yet our performance is still far from ideal.  And, unless we figure out way for study abroad to become the norm, we will be failing our students.

Consider what’s happening with our economy.  The stock of foreign direct investments of American companies abroad has surpassed 30% of GDP, exports of goods and services are about 14% of GDP, and imports, 17%.

In the iconic Apple, of $234B in sales last year, only $94B came from the Americas (North and South!).  And while sales in the Americas grew at 17%, sales in China grew at a mind-blowing 84%.  Apple’s products are designed in California and assembled in China with components sourced from around the world.  Apple’s success will be determined not just by the quality of its engineering, design, supply chain and marketing talent, but by the ability of that talent to operate on a global scale.

It is a mistake to see study abroad as a sort of finishing school for the elites who can afford it.  It should be seen as a necessary learning experience to develop critical skills for the 21st century.

Compared to the rest of the world, the U.S. ranks near the bottom in the rate of students studying abroad measured as a proportion of total higher education enrollment. The most common destinations for U.S. students going abroad continue to be in Europe (UK, Italy, Spain, and France). Women study abroad more than men, white students more than minorities, and humanities majors more than science and engineering majors.  Not only we need to increase the numbers to improve, we need to diversify who studies abroad, and we need to diversify destinations.

Overall, the trends are pointing in the right direction.  It is indeed encouraging to see growth in the global exchange of students. But the trend in the US is not keeping pace with the rate of globalization of the economy.

At the recent annual meeting of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, discussions abounded as to how recent tragic events in Paris would affect overall interest in studying abroad.  Weighing that concern is understandable. But this is worth weighing as well: Widespread international exchange, and the greater understanding gained from such experiences, is our best hope of preventing future atrocities.

Write to presidentstaff at scullen1@gmu.edu

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