Why Americans are choosing to study abroad in record numbers

The number of American students who study abroad has been climbing steadily, more than tripling in the last two decades. The need to compete in a globalized world is one reason.

Peter Ford / The Christian Science Monitor
Asako Sakane (l.) and fellow Japanese student Taisuke Someya relax after class at Beijing Foreign Studies University. They both think their futures will be brighter if they study in China rather than in the US.

American students are studying abroad in record numbers.

According to a report Monday by the Institute of International Education (IIE), 270,604 American students studied abroad for academic credit in the 2009-2010 academic year, an increase of nearly 4 percent over the previous year.

This figure has more than tripled in the past two decades, with the number of students studying abroad increasing every year. The 2008-2009 academic year was a notable exception, which the IIE, a Washington-based nonprofit educational and cultural exchange organization, attributed to world economic conditions.

The IIE’s findings were released in its annual Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange. IIE and US officials indicate that the long term trend shows more importance being placed on students gaining international experience.

“For American students to be competitive in today’s globalized world, international experience is critically important,” Ann Stock, assistant secretary of State for educational and cultural affairs, said in a press release. “Young people who study abroad gain the global skills necessary to create solutions to 21st Century challenges.”

Britain, Italy, Spain, France, and China remained the top host destinations, but more students are going to countries that aren’t on the usual list. Fifteen of the top 25 destinations were outside of Western Europe and nineteen were countries where English is not a primary language. 

More than 14,000 students studied in China this past year, contributing to the country’s rising popularity as a destination for US students. There was also a 44-percent increase in students going to India. Israel, Brazil, Egypt, and New Zealand also showed large percentage gains.

So what explains this phenomenon? Peggy Blumenthal, senior counselor to the president of the IIE, says seeking experiences abroad is directly linked with expanding opportunities at home. 

“As the fields diversify from which American students come, so will the diversity of destinations as well,” says Ms. Blumenthal in a phone interview. “Thirty years ago, students would go abroad to study art in Italy or history in France, but now students want to study every field where the action is and do it on the ground; that means going to a whole new range of different countries.”

According to the report, the most common fields of study for US students abroad are social sciences, business management, humanities, fine and applied arts, and physical and life sciences. Blumenthal says the chief motivation for US students traveling abroad is to augment the degrees they started to pursue at US schools. 

“Americans are not going abroad for the degrees, they’re going abroad to enhance their degrees – to see how engineering or physics is taught in a different place and to learn from that experience.”

But as IIE president and chief executive officer Allan E. Goodman notes, the number of American students abroad represents only a small fraction of those enrolled in US higher education.

“We are encouraged to hear that campuses are seeing their study abroad numbers rise,” he said in a press release. “However, with a total higher education enrollment of over 20 million, there remains a huge unmet need to expand American students’ international experience, and an even greater challenge to ensure that access to study abroad is available to all.”

The number of international students enrolling at US institutions is also at a record high, the Open Doors report found, having increased by 32 percent over the last decade. Currently, 723,277 international graduate and undergraduate students study in the US.

California, New York, Texas, Massachusetts and Illinois continued their reign as the top five host states. The University of Southern California, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, New York University, Purdue University, and Columbia University were the top five US institutions hosting international students.

By a wide margin, China sends more students to the US – 157,558 , about 22 percent of the total – than any other country. India sends the second largest student cohort, 103,895.

According to the US Department of Commerce, international students contribute more than $21 billion to the US economy through their expenditures on tuition and living expenses.

Blumenthal says the American and international students studying outside their home countries are looking for essentially the same thing.

“Students know their careers are going to be global. It used to be possible to have a career where all of your colleagues would be [one nationality]; it’s not anymore,” she says. “People realize their lives will be greatly shaped by how well they understand what’s going on everywhere, not just by reading about it, but by firsthand experience.” 

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