WASHINGTON – Tiffany Fung spent the summer in Paris. The senior art history major at Oberlin College had wanted to study abroad since her freshman year, inspired by the famous works she read about in “The Da Vinci Code.”
She learned to operate outside her comfort zone, practicing her French at museums and cafes. She took classes with other international students.
Fung would definitely recommend the experience.
But only about 1 percent of the 20.4 million students enrolled in American colleges went abroad to study in 2009-2010.
The data, collected by the Institute of International Education, which also manages Fulbright Program, tallies students who earn credits abroad for a degree earned at an American college or university.
So why aren’t more students studying abroad?
“We can’t just sit back and play dead,” said Sanford Ungar, president of liberal arts school Goucher College, who moderated a panel discussion in Washington last week. “We have to be clear about our values and the benefits and keep looking for data,” he said.
That data, which indicates the economic benefit of these programs, could be key to driving money into international undergraduate education.
Almost 60 percent of Americans see study abroad as a vital component of an education that prepares students for success in the global workplace, said a survey by the Association of International Educators.
“You learn the world isn’t flat and you can’t be caught flat-footed,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md. “You get to see us as the rest of the world sees us,” she said, “and that’s usually a big shock.”
Culture shock rings true for Fung. “It was rougher than I imagined,” she said. “I had romanticized Paris, and Paris isn’t as accommodating to Americans.”
A possible deterrent: It’s expensive. Before committing the money, students and university board members alike want to be convinced of the tangible benefit to American business.
“Take it beyond saying it’s a great experience,” said Peter McPherson, president of the Association for Public Universities.
He encouraged the panel to find hard connections between study abroad programs and how the experience helps young people get jobs and stimulate our economy.
“Employers don’t necessarily value study abroad,” he said, “except the flexibility and ability to adapt to new circumstances. There is work yet to do to make this palatable to provosts and deans to act.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. hosted more than 690,000 international students in 2009-2010, while around 720,000 American students studied abroad. Last year, the number of international students increased to more than 720,000. Statistics for Americans studying abroad have not yet been released.
The top five destinations for American students were the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, France and China. A third of American students study in the top four European destinations. Just more than half of American students study in Europe.
Meanwhile, almost half of all international students come from three countries: China, India and South Korea.