Managing Education Abroad: How to Overcome Key Barriers to Education Abroad

April 01, 2009

Colleges and universities often unwittingly create roadblocks that discourage, rather than encourage, students from pursuing education abroad. Here are some of the most common barriers that stand in the way of study abroad, and some ideas for how your own institution can avoid or overcome these barriers:

Barrier #1
Unmotivated Faculty. While colleges and individual departments must decide whether to grant credit for courses and work done overseas, most faculty keep their distance. They make sure that the work done abroad is minimally acceptable, but they do not see it as their responsibility to ensure that study abroad is carefully integrated with the offerings on campus. Colleges often provide too few incentives for faculty to work closely with students on planning, supervising and assessing the study abroad experience. Moreover, junior faculty may be reluctant to take on assignments that cut into the time available for writing and research activities that colleges reward with tenure and promotion.
How to Overcome the Barrier: St. Cloud State University uses tenured and tenure-track faculty in its study abroad programs as the rule, not the exception. Each year about 20 faculty members are reassigned to teach courses in the university's 14 semester-long study abroad programs, which represents a significant institutional commitment of resources. St. Cloud's programs have four guiding principles: they must be curriculum-based; address student demands; have impact by design; and capitalize on faculty expertise, both academic and cultural.
Barrier #2:
Demanding Curricula. Most curricula are crammed with requirements that leave students little leeway for programs like study abroad, especially for licensed professions such as architecture, engineering, teaching or medicine. Study abroad may fit naturally into the schedule of a language or area studies major, but curricular demands may preclude others from leaving campus for a semester, let alone two, unless they are willing to stretch their undergraduate education into a fifth year.
How to Overcome the Barrier: There are some innovative models out there to make study abroad more accessible for undergraduate students in professions like engineering. One such model is the Global Engineering Education Exchange (Global E3), a consortium of engineering schools launched initially with National Science Foundation funding and now supported by fees and corporate sponsorships. Global E3 provides a mechanism for engineering students to go abroad for a semester, summer or school year and maintain academic progress at their U.S. institution. It provides a structure to validate student course work in advance of the overseas study, identifies a network of overseas institutions, and encourages student participation in post-program internships abroad.
Barrier #3
Financial Constraints. Financial constraints often discourage students from studying abroad. Some study abroad programs, both campus-based and those provided by a third-party, seem inordinately and unnecessarily expensive. Compounding this problem is the fact that many students work part-time or longer to help pay their bills, and those who study abroad usually must forego those critical paychecks.
How to Overcome the Barrier: Study abroad programming should include options that lower financial barriers to students whose circumstances do not permit higher costs or loss of income, including scholarships and fee waivers, overseas work opportunities and shorter-term study abroad options. One example is the International Student Exchange Program (ISEP), which has linkages and programs that reach into 35 countries. Serving more than 115 U.S. colleges and universities since its founding in 1979, ISEP is well-known for providing affordable EA opportunities for students who do not typically participate in study abroad programs.
Barrier #4
Lack of Diversity. African American and Hispanic/Latino American students are significantly underrepresented among study abroad participants, as are the nontraditional students who comprise 75% of undergraduates today: students who did not graduate from high school; did not enroll in an institution of higher education directly after high school; are attending part-time; are working full-time; or are financially independent, married or have dependents.
How to Overcome the Barrier: To include this broad swath of the student population in education abroad, programs must be designed to accommodate their unique needs. The University of Minnesota, for example, created a low-cost, three-week program for its food science and nutrition majors in Ecuador. The program allows students to interact with individuals in Quito with key socio-economic and cultural circumstances that mirror those of urban Minnesotans with whom these students will interact as professionals after they graduate. The program's short time-frame and lower costs help attract students who may otherwise not participate in study abroad.
This resource includes excerpts from NAFSA's Securing America's Future: Global Education for a Global Age report.