Study abroad on the decline?

| Staff Reporter

Following record-setting numbers of students studying abroad in past years, the study abroad departments at many universities across the country are experiencing a dip in the number of students going abroad. This national trend, however, does not appear to apply to Washington University.

For the upcoming spring semester, there is a total of 196 students from the College of Arts & Sciences at Washington University going abroad. This number is a drop from last spring’s 234. But the decline was not likewise observed in the recently concluded fall semester. In fact, the College of Arts & Sciences sent one more student abroad in the fall semester than in the previous fall semester.

“The [overall] dip in enrollments this year is likely due to the global financial turmoil that has taken place,” said Priscilla Stone, assistant provost for international education and director of overseas programs and undergraduate studies. “We do not believe that interest in studying abroad has wavered.”

Students study abroad around the world. (Clockwise from top left: Courtesy of Catherine Schuler, Courtesy of Michael Offerman, Courtesy of Sami Alpert, Courtesy of Niki Dankner)

Students study abroad around the world. (Clockwise from top left: Courtesy of Catherine Schuler, Courtesy of Michael Offerman, Courtesy of Sami Alpert, Courtesy of Niki Dankner)

Jessica Mervis, a study abroad adviser, said, “In the past few semesters, the most frequently cited reasons for students deciding not to study abroad are academic and financial.”

“I think that the economy has affected students’ decisions to study abroad both directly and indirectly,” Mervis added. “A lot of the spring study-abroad programs end in mid- to late June, which cuts into the summer after junior year. These program dates are incompatible with summer internships. Several students decided that a summer internship was more important than a semester abroad in terms of finding a job after graduation.”

Mervis explained that she anticipates a shift from studying abroad in spring to studying abroad in the fall so that students have time to apply and are available for summer internships. Studying abroad in the fall will allow more time for students to prepare for graduate school exams and job searches.

“We typically have almost double the number of students studying abroad in the spring than fall,” Mervis said. “But last semester we saw more students in advising for fall study-abroad programs than in years past.”

In the academic year from 1998 to 1999, the College of Arts & Sciences sent a total of 283 students abroad through the fall, spring and summer semesters. A decade later, during the academic year from 2008 to 2009, the number of students going abroad had jumped to 557.

It is unclear what the ultimate impact of the financial decline will be on Washington University students studying abroad. University students in the past have not been deterred from studying abroad amid adverse conditions. In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, the number of students studying abroad did not decline.

“We attribute the increase in participation to a number of factors, such as greater awareness by students of the importance and long-term value of an international study experience, more diversity in approved programs and locations, better student academic planning, and stronger faculty support,” Stone said.

Washington University’s recent trend in the number of students studying abroad largely reflects the patterns observed in schools throughout the country.

Brown University typically sends one-third of its junior class abroad. According to statistics provided by Kendall Brostuen, director of the Office of International Programs at Brown University, the school experienced a 10 percent drop in enrollment between fall 2008 and fall 2009.

At Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., at least 60 percent of the students usually participate in the overseas programs. Amy Phenix, a Macalester College spokeswoman, stated that the college experienced a 25 percent decline in the study abroad enrollment this past fall as compared to the same time the previous year.

For the fall and spring study-abroad programs, students at Washington University are able to use their existing Washington University scholarships, as well as federal and state financial aid, because Washington University charges the regular tuition even while students are studying abroad. But financial aid and scholarships do not apply to summer programs, so students pay direct costs to the study abroad program. Nevertheless, there are many scholarships and fellowships that students can apply for.

At Washington University, the most common majors and minors for study abroad are anthropology, Spanish, political science and economics. In total, there are more than 100 approved programs in more than 50 countries.