Studying Abroad: The Who, the Why, and the Why Not

Click for the full infographic from Open Doors

When the  Institute of International Education (IIE) releases its yearly statistics on international education, those concerning international students in the US get the most buzz. But another set of numbers, those on American students studying abroad, should get our attention, as well.

In 2011/12, over 280,000 students from the US took classes overseas. While this is an all-time high, overall only 9% of US students study abroad during their time as undergraduates.

Who are these students, and why do they study abroad while most others do not? First, I’ll talk about the who, and then I’ll move on to the why.

Who Decides to Study Abroad?

A look at the groups that make up the biggest proportions of study-abroad students gives a snapshot of who they are. Here are some of the largest percentages, along with the group in second place:

  • Females – 65%
  • Whites – 76% (Asians, Native Hawaiians, or Other Pacific Islanders – 8%; Hispanics or Latinos – 8%)
  • Undergraduates – 86% (Graduate students—excluding doctoral students – 13%)
  • Juniors – 36% (Seniors – 24%)
  • Students in the social sciences – 22% (Business and management – 21%)

And here, for good measure, are some numbers on where and how long:

  • The United Kingdom as host country – 12% (Italy – 11%)
  • For the summer, or eight weeks or less – 59% (One quarter to one semester – 38%)

Why Do They Go, while Others Don’t?

Several factors affect students’ plans to study abroad and their follow through. As would be expected, several studies show that socio-economic status plays a large role. Mark Salisbury, et al., in his oft-referenced research, found that a student’s intention to study abroad is positively related to family income and parental education. Other qualities that have positive effects on a student’s study-abroad plans are a high interest in reading and writing, and an openness to diversity concerning ideas and people. He also found that Asian Pacific Islanders are less likely than other races to make plans to study abroad

In a doctoral dissertation at the University of Minnesota, Jinous Kasravi presents findings indicating that barriers to studying abroad include the cost of study-abroad programs and restrictions on the use of financial aid, family resistance and the restrictions of cultural norms, concerns about being able to transfer courses, and lack of parental experience traveling internationally. The main focus of Kasravi’s study was factors influencing students of color in study-abroad decisions. His findings indicate that, in spite of the obstacles, a key determining factor for non-white students is “personal internal drive and determination to have this type of overseas experience.”

A study by April Stroud further adds to the findings, showing that negative factors for studying abroad include having plans for a graduate degree, living with family while going to school, and having majors such as engineering, architecture, or medicine.” Positive factors include wanting to better understand other cultures and countries and attending a college or university over 100 miles from one’s home.

This last point, the distance school is away from home, is the topic of a recent New York Times article. It discusses whether students who attend college far away from their home are more likely to choose a more “challenging” country (say, Cambodia  vs England) as a study-abroad destination. Bruce Poch, former dean of admissions at California’s Pomona College, says that going to a challenging country requires a certain level of independence in a student, the same kind of independence that would cause a student to pick a college far from home. “And there’s still an adventuresomeness to students who choose that path,” he says, “There are just a lot of kids who don’t want to go to school with the same people they went to high school with, and they do that against a lot of pressure.”

Richard Bright is director of off-campus study at Grinnell, where most students come from out of state and 65% of juniors study abroad. “[W]e do know that most of our students are taking a flight here,” says Bright in the article. “So plenty of students are coming from distant parts of the country, and then they really go all over the world.”

Joseph Brockington is the director for the center for international programs at Kalamazoo College in Michigan. He brings the whole discussion—about choosing a country or even to go abroad at all—back to the importance of parental influence. Parents, Brockington tells The New York Times, are concerned “about whether their kids will be taken care of. So we try hard to dispel the rumors, but if Mom’s against it, it’s not going to happen.”

(Open Doors 2013: Report on International Educational Exchange, Institute of International Education, 2013; Mark H. Salisbury, “Going Global: Understanding the Choice Process of the Intent to Study Abroad,” June 2008; Jinous Kasravi, “Factors Influencing the Decision to Study Abroad for Students of Color: Moving beyond the Barriers,” August 2009; April H. Stroud, abstract of “Who Plans (Not) to Study Abroad? An Examination of U.S. Student Intent,” Journal of Studies in International Education, November 2010; Michael A. Wilner, “Are Students Who Go Far Away to College More Likely to Study Abroad?The New York Times, June 10, 2013)

[Infographic courtesy of Open Doors 2013: Report on International Educational Exchange, Institute of International education, 2013]


5 thoughts on “Studying Abroad: The Who, the Why, and the Why Not

  1. Reblogged this on CatchTradeWinds and commented:
    In my experience I have only encountered American students studying for a year or less. Most study for a summer session (6 weeks) or one semester. The statistics present an interesting outlook on undergraduates in the United States.


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