Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF

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Nearly 400,000 US students abroad in 2018

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
    • More than 340,000 American students went abroad for credit-related study in 2017/18, an increase of 2.7% over the previous year
    • Another 38,401 US students travelled overseas for non-credit internships, volunteer placements, and research, which marks a 66% increase in non-credit outbound over two years

So often we write about the number of international students coming to study in the US, not the least because that number is so massive (1,095,300 last year, including Optional Practical Training placements) and because the US remains world’s leading destination for international students.

But the US is also a major sender of international students. In 2017/18, 341,750 American students studied abroad for academic credit, a 2.7% increase over the previous year, according to the annual Open Doors report, which is published by the Institute of International Education (IIE) with funding from the US Department of State. IIE estimates that more than 10% of US undergraduates (including those in community colleges) and 16% of bachelor degree students go abroad for a part of their programme of study.

Student profile

US students abroad are mostly women. IIE reports more diversity in outbound numbers and that more than half are following STEM or business programmes:

  • 67% of US students abroad were women – The Atlantic has an intriguing piece about why this gender disparity might be so;
  • 30% of were non-white, compared with 18% in 2007/08;
  • 26% were in STEM fields;
  • 25% were in business;
  • 17% were in social sciences;
  • 7% were in foreign languages.

Very few go abroad for a full year:

  • 64% were on short-term programmes (i.e., less than a semester abroad);
  • 33% were on mid-length programmes (e.g., at least one semester abroad);
  • Only 2.3% went overseas for a full academic year.

Top destinations for Americans

The UK is the leading destination for US students but received 1% fewer students in 2017/18 compared to the year before. Number two on the list is Italy, where 4.5% more Americans opted to study in 2017/18. Spain and France, numbers #3 and #4, received 3.8% and 4.4% more students, respectively. Germany saw a small year-over-year decrease (-2.7%) and Ireland saw a 4% increase.

The 2017/18 academic year witnessed China fall behind Ireland in terms of its popularity among American students; there were 2.5% fewer American students in China during that year, possibly in part because of trade tensions between the two countries.

Fastest-growing destinations

Greece saw the largest increase in American students coming to their institutions (+20%), but the Netherlands (+15.4%), Japan (12.4%), Israel (+11.9%), and Argentina (+11.2%) also saw double-digit gains.

Non-credit placements on the rise

The IIE adds that an additional 38,401 American students participated in non-credit internships, volunteering and research abroad in 2017/18 – a significant increase (+66%) from the 23,125 students who went abroad for such placements in the 2015/15 academic year.

Still a small proportion

Despite the hundreds of thousands of American students currently abroad, fewer than 2% of American post-secondary students opt to study abroad.

An important new movement is afoot in the US, however, called The Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Program Act, introduced by several senators and representatives in 2019. As Forbes reports, it was “named after the late senator from Illinois who was a persuasive advocate for the importance of international education to economic growth and national security”, and “the bill is similar to legislation that has passed the House of Representatives in previous sessions with considerable bipartisan support.”

Forbes continues that,

“[Study abroad] has too often been more of a boutique enrichment for privileged students than a basic educational experience available to a range of students.”

NAFSA is a strong supporter of the bill, of which Executive Director Esther Brimmer says, “The proposed Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Program Act is an excellent example of leaders working together to open opportunities for college students to learn about the world and gain insights that will help them thrive in the future.”

Growing interest in outbound

The Canadian government has also looked closely at the relatively low level at which Canadian students study abroad. Encouraging students from diverse backgrounds to study abroad is a priority in the county’s latest international education strategy. The new strategy includes a five-year pilot project that will provide financial aid of between CDN$5,000 to CDN$10,000 per year to 11,000 undergraduate students to study or work abroad, particularly in Latin American and Asian destinations. Priority groups for the pilot will be low-income students, Indigenous students, and students with disabilities.

In the UK, increasing outbound student mobility to just over 13% of students by 2020 (this year) is a goal set out in Universities UK’s Strategy for Outward Student Mobility 2017–2020.

In the EU, a Bologna Process Implementation Report entitled “The European Higher Education Area in 2018” explains that,at least 20% of those graduating in the EHEA [European Higher Education Area] should have had a study or training period abroad by 2020.” The report adds that:

“At a national level, the majority of countries (35 systems [ed: out of 48; see here for the full list of EHEA countries have adopted national targets for outward student mobility]). These targets could be qualitative or quantitative and they are either part of a national strategic document or exist as a specific central action to support mobility. In comparison with the 2015 Bologna report, where only 20 systems reported that they had clear targets for outward student mobility we observe a significant increase in the use of target setting to support and monitor progress in mobility.”

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