New Data on Study Abroad Programming Tells Us This is Not a Time for Complacency

Every year, international educators around the U.S. wait with a sense of excitement for the annual “Open Doors Report” published by the Institute for International Education.  Each year, there is something interesting in those numbers that captures our interest and compels those in the field to reflect on the successes and challenges of the previous year, and opportunities for the year to come. This year’s Report has many of us in the field wondering where the momentum in the growth of diverse students has gone. Last year gave us hope that the efforts to increase access to education abroad programming may have been paying off. This year, though, offers a somber reminder that there is much work yet to be done.

The number of students from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds participating in education abroad opportunities remained stubbornly flat. In 2013 the slight uptick in racially/ethnically diverse students and students with disabilities made many of us excited by the idea that perhaps some of the efforts that have been developed to recruit and serve students from these backgrounds was finally beginning to show results, at least as far as numbers are concerned. But, perhaps, our excitement got the better of us, and our complacency may now be showing.

African American/Black, Latino/Hispanic, and students enrolled in Associates degree granting programs got a major boost last year. This year, all three groups remained exactly the same. Students with disabilities moved only slightly from 5% to 5.1%. So what happened?

For the last two decades, the field of education abroad has struggled with making international opportunities more accessible to a more representative cadre of U.S. undergraduate students. Institutions have explored ways to facilitate partnerships on campus, to revamp marketing materials, and to identify peer mentors to extend the message to students that, yes, study abroad is for you. But did we get too excited too soon? Maybe. Maybe not. In any case these numbers are a clear reminder of the work we have yet to do.

We’ve identified some things that international education and exchange institutions and organizations are doing that might warrant additional attention for this next year.

Comprehensive Diversity and Inclusion Planning

Reaching the goal of democratizing education abroad requires strategic planning and implementation of diversity and inclusion good practices in the entire education abroad process, from inquiry through re-entry. By taking this holistic approach institutions and providers are able to assess their current efforts to recruit, advise, and serve the needs of diverse and underrepresented students, determine areas of strength and address areas for development. Incorporating diversity and inclusive good practices into current education abroad operations has proven to not only increase participation among diverse and underrepresented students, but also enhance their international experience.

Strategic Marketing

Until recently, it was often the case that students of color, students with disabilities, and students with high-financial need were not hearing a message that said that education abroad was an opportunity within their reach. Institutions and providers have seen the importance of developing inclusive messaging and visual materials that speak to students from a wider swath of the U.S. population. In order for students to consider international opportunities, the message needs to clearly convey that international opportunities are available to all students.

While the visual representation is important, the message that is being disseminated is crucial. For many underrepresented students it is important to see why study abroad pays off in the long run. What will the return on their investment be? Career benefits, professional outcomes, and skills development are pieces of the “why you should study abroad” message that, until recently, haven’t been the focus of most marketing material. For many diverse students, the personal growth and cultural competencies aren’t the draw. They want to know how this will help them in the long run. Salisbury et al., 2011 emphasize this point by noting that diverse students see their undergraduate education as an investment in their future job prospects, so making the connection for how study abroad connects to these goals is important.

Peer-to-Peer Mentoring

While the numbers for racially/ethnically diverse students going abroad didn’t increase this year, the increase in the last several years in students from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds participating in education abroad programming means there has also been an increase in education abroad alumni who are now able to mentor and outreach to students who identify with these backgrounds. Developing peer mentorship opportunities and reaching out specifically to diverse education abroad alumni to participate in these programs is important to give diverse students an opportunity to connect with their peers.

Research and Assessment

Assessment and evaluation in education abroad continues to advance with better methods of collecting and reporting data. Institutions and organizations have done much work to collect more exhaustive data on who is studying abroad and where, and there have been big strides in tying international experiences to important outcomes such as retention, GPA, graduation time, and job prospects.

We can do better, though. According to this year’s data, only 28% of institutions provided data about student with disabilities, and it isn’t clear if every institution included information by type of disability (the percentages by type only reflect the numbers available for those who reported, and information about non-reported groups is not included). Equally interesting to note, with each of the student demographics data collected (e.g., race/ethnicity, gender, disability), it isn’t entirely clear who might not be represented here. There is not a category to accommodate students who don’t identify/respond to these questions or missing data. Anyone who works with data knows there is always some missing information. This tells us that we need to do more to collect better and more complete information from the students we serve. Are we offering students multiple opportunities to tell us how they identify (e.g, application, pre-departure, re-entry surveys)?

There is still much work to be done to ensure that education abroad develops inclusive practices and environments to support an increasingly diverse student population. From the application process to the re-entry activities, international education professionals should also begin to focus efforts to make sure students from all backgrounds, particularly those from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds, are supported from the point when they express interest in education abroad to their return to campus. The following areas are particularly relevant to developing an inclusive and open environment for students.

  • Advising and guidance

  • Application process

  • Pre-departure training

  • In-country support

  • Re-entry assistance

The numbers from this year’s Open Doors Report suggest that it is not the time to slow in our efforts to continue to expand access to education abroad programming. In many ways, this year’s numbers challenge the field to enhance efforts to now support and develop more inclusive practices to serve the changing demographic of students in education abroad.

Cross posted on the Diversity Network blog on November 18, 2014.

Published by lilylop

Lily Lopez-McGee is deeply committed to equalizing access to education and increasing opportunities for underrepresented students to gain international credentials. She is bilingual in English and Spanish and has traveled through parts of Latin America and Western Europe.

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