Affordable, High-Impact Study Abroad

Among the Findings  from GLOSSARI, the Georgia Learning Outcomes of Students Studying Abroad Research Initiative:

  • Students completing study abroad programs show improved academic performance in subsequent terms
  • Study abroad students have higher graduation rates
  • Study abroad improves academic performance for at-risk students

However, as the Chronicle's recent article "7 Signs of Successful Study Abroad Programs" notes, as few as 1.5% of American college students study overseas each year. The cost of participation in study abroad programs remains a key barrier for students. We asked Wendy Williamson, director of study abroad at Eastern Illinois University, for a few strategies for keeping study abroad affordable without sacrificing the quality of the learning experience.

Keeping Study Abroad Affordable for Students

Williamson recommends:

  • Seek out partnerships with your development office and look for opportunities to provide scholarships for students studying abroad
  • Look for the most cost-effective partnerships as you develop your program
  • Establish study abroad programs that are shorter in duration yet designed to maximize the learning experience and cultural integration

"Some institutions only use third-party providers," Williamson says. "Use these only when needed." You may not need to use a more expensive third party if the host university has a well-established office to manage arrivals of international students and can therefore provide many of the same services, such as helping students find housing or supplying an orientation and an easily accessible contact in the host country. On the other hand, if the host university does not have the resources to provide these services, you may want to use a third-party provider and ensure that students have 24/7 access to a site director.

Williamson also recommends creativity in the types of partnerships you form with institutions in the host country. For example, consider direct enrollment programs, in which your students enroll directly in the other institution. Be creative in developing exchange and linkage agreements -- the traditional 1-to-1 student exchange may not be the best fit for your needs. More institutions are considering agreements that provide low-cost study abroad for students as part of a larger exchange of academic resources or joint research. For example, Eastern Illinois University has found success in an exchange program with institutions in Thailand in which EIU sends faculty abroad and Thailand sends students to EIU. There may be cases in which the reverse of that agreement works as well.

In some cases, you can also opt to partner with a reputable language school or institute rather than with a university. Language institutes often offer a lower cost for your students, are equipped to customize a more specialized program for the students, and have a business-oriented focus on customer service.

Shorter-term study abroad programs (intersession, spring break, and 1-2 week excursions) also provide more affordable opportunities, but these do entail some fresh challenges in maximizing the learning experience and the opportunities for cultural integration.

Maximizing Learning in Short-term Study Abroad Programs

"For shorter programs, really look at the cultural integration piece of the program."
Wendy Williamson, Eastern Illinois U

In a week-long or intersession program, it is especially crucial to find every opportunity to maximize opportunities for cultural integration. "Students are less likely to go out on their own in one week or two weeks," Williamson warns. "You need to plan the integration into the structure of the program." For example, a week-long program with students staying in dorms at a host institution will not accomplish as much as a week-long program with home stays. Allowing students to stay with local families will give opportunity for significant leaps in cultural awareness and language acquisition.

If home stays are not a viable option, identify ways to collaborate with the host institution that allow your students a more immersive experience. Williamson cites the example of a group of education students visiting the Ukraine who taught English to children in the host country while they were there. Students from the host university partnered with the visiting students to provide translation. This creative partnership created a learning experience for both the students from the American institution and the students from the Ukraine.

A third, related option for short-term study abroad programs is to build in a service-learning component.

Prioritize Your Study Abroad Opportunities

Finally, Williamson advises taking a more strategic approach to prioritizing possible study abroad programs. Because study abroad programs can have a high impact on student learning outcomes and completion rates, adding faculty-led programs on an ad hoc basis may not be the best or most cost-effective approach. You can lower your institution's costs and ensure the greatest return both in student learning and tuition revenue by focusing on programs with high student demand and departmental priority. Simply put, besides lowering the cost of studying abroad to both the student and your institution, you want to be able to offer your students more of the right programs.

"We need to find the programs that are the best match with departmental learning outcomes and that are most likely to be successful (based on price, location, and especially evidence of student demand)."
Wendy Williamson, Eastern Illinois U

Williamson says that opening conversations with department chairs about what study abroad opportunities will help achieve learning outcomes that are valuable to their majors. Invite department chairs to survey their majors to discover:

  • The students' level of interest in study abroad
  • What students perceive as barriers to participating
  • Locations of interest
  • The length of the program desired

Do the students in a given department prefer a spring break excursion or a semester-long program? Williamson offers the example of students in a graduate-level education program who may be interning and for whom the longer program may not even be a viable choice.

Once you have your data, prioritization may come down to your willingness to replace a program that has very low demand with a program that will be more successful.