Summing up motivations for study abroad

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • A majority of prospective students aged 18 or younger say that their main motivation for study abroad is to seek new cultural experiences
  • For those over 18 years of age, employability and career goals are the major motivating factors for overseas study

Why do students study abroad, and what drives them to choose one destination over another? Several large studies conducted over the past couple of years show that certain motivations are widely present among students the world over.

New experiences and safe environments

Students’ age plays a role in how decisions about study abroad are made. Throughout 2016, AFS Intercultural Programs surveyed thousands of prospective students between the ages of 13 and 18 about why they were interested in studying abroad. A clear majority of these young respondents – as many as 75% in some markets – said their main motivation was to seek new cultural experiences.

“Gen Z youth want to go out and experience a world that is larger and different than their own,” says AFS CEO Daniel Obst. “What’s more, Gen Z students don’t just want to simply travel to other countries; they are looking for authentic experiences through the eyes of local people. These are the adventures and stories they want to experience and share with others.”

Younger students are less price-sensitive than older students; more important to 13–18-year-olds than cost are the reputation of the host country and school and the availability of programmes in English. Safety is a top-of-mind concern: more than half of respondents to the AFS survey said they had concerns about safety and security when considering study abroad.

A focus on safety, however, is not age-specific. The ICEF i-graduate Agent Barometer survey shows a four-year trend in which prospective students’ concerns about safety have risen every year (from 2012 to 2016). And Hobsons’ 2017 International Student Survey of more than 62,000 respondents found that for just over three in ten students, “the degree to which a place feels welcoming” – where “welcoming” relates to both safety and the openness and supportiveness of a campus or community – was the most important factor in their choice of a study destination.

Course availability and cost

The AFS study reveals that most junior students are motivated by the prospect of cultural and travel experiences, with a smaller – but still significant – proportion motivated by future career or educational goals. That balance shifts, however, as students get older. For students older than 18, employability and career goals emerge as the overriding factors in student decision-making, both with respect to opportunities to stay and work in a study destination after graduation and in terms of the career opportunities that study abroad can open up for them at home.

Recent editions of the Hobsons annual student survey show that international students consider course first, country second, and institution third. This prioritisation underlines the centrality of questions about the quality and availability of a preferred field of study in student decision-making. More broadly, the availability of in-demand courses is well understood to be a primary driver of demand for study abroad: students become more interested in going overseas for their education when there are significant concerns about either quality or access to a particular field of study in their home country.

The importance of a desired course or field of study being available is reflected as well in the way students research study abroad options online: the vast majority of students do not have a particular institution in mind when they begin their search process. Rather, they search based on course type or subject area, and often in combination with a destination (e.g., engineering in Germany).

As well as course availability and quality, cost also registers as a significant factor in student decision-making. In fact, cost has been found to be the leading reason that foreign students decline an admissions offer from an overseas institution. A 2016 World Education Services (WES) study found that one in three students who did not follow through on their plans to study in the US did so because of cost concerns.

Study abroad as a future game-changer

As they consider course availability and quality, money matters, and safety, students also have their eyes on the ultimate prize: a successful career. In recent surveys by Hobsons, WES, and QS, a significant percentage of prospective students – typically 40% or more – say that employability and career goals heavily influence their decision-making.

These findings indicate that students take the long view when making decisions about study abroad. They are pursuing a degree not only for the sake of an education, but also for the sake of their future.

This is true for both undergraduate and post-graduate prospects, and recent editions of the QS World Grad School Tour Applicant Survey show that over the past several years, post-graduate applicants have become more focused on employment outcomes, whether in the context of specific career goals or, in the words of the study authors, simply because of “a more general sense of the need to become as ‘employable’ as possible.”

“Factors relating to employability loom large,” adds QS. “Almost 60% of master’s applicants say their prime motivation for further study is to progress in their current career, to improve their employment prospects more generally, or to enter a particular profession.”

These findings have clear implications for institutions and student recruiters. Marketing efforts should emphasise course selection and quality. Costs should be transparent and highly visible. Safety is a top concern, and students want reassurance that they will feel welcome. And, needless to say, graduate outcomes with respect to employability and career success should be front and centre.

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