Is it worth it? Challenges for study abroad (and Higher Education)

Is it worth it? Challenges for study abroad (and higher education)

Recently, I was talking with the head of an international studies program who mentioned that participation in study abroad has declined noticeably in recent years. We noted a number of reasons why. For students, the cost was a big deterrent; many see the price tag as especially high. Furthermore, many are very concerned with graduating “on time” and worry that a study abroad experience will not “fit in” with their schedule and delay graduation. Moreover, they are career-focused, and perceive that study abroad will not advance them professionally. Another problem is engaging faculty. They find planning study abroad experiences quite onerous. Both institutional resources and the pool of students is quite limited, making it hard to launch and sustain study abroad initiatives. In sum, for both students and faculty, when it comes to studying abroad, they are asking: is it worth it?

This is not just a pressing question for study abroad, but for all of U.S. higher education. Spiraling college costs have garnered a lot of criticism, as most recently evidenced by debt “forgiveness” for college loans becoming a political issue. Universities now face demands to ensure students graduate “on time” with “career ready” degrees. Some are asking whether a college education is even a necessity, pointing to labor shortages in skilled trades. Many institutions have responded with efforts to control costs, leading to cuts in academic programs that leave them under-resourced. Critics charge that these trends are actually counterproductive, and ultimately will denude the value of the college experience.

Such criticism has some merit, yet there is also a need for higher education in general and study abroad programs, in particular, to get to grips with these issues. There is a need to adapt what is offered, but also to better “sell” it. In sum, there is a need to address issues such as cost, but also perceptions; what’s more, these often overlap. For example, while “cost” seems a rather concrete issue, it is entangled with perception. In fact, the problem students (and parents) have with study abroad (and higher education) is not cost, but value. Put simply, people often pay more for “brand name” items. (Starbuck’s is a prime example of this.) Why? They perceive it has value. There is a lesson for institutions and programs to learn here. Starbuck’s has intentionally created a brand that leads millions to spend several dollars on a coffee drink. Likewise, programs need to review and refine their offerings to make them more compelling to students, make a compelling case for their value, and then deliver on the promises. If they do so, they can build a brand that is not merely cheap, but valuable.

At CBI, this understanding shapes our approach to developing programs. As we mull over the study abroad landscape and the need of students, we have worked to create experiences that make sense in terms of vocational and professional advancement, even as they challenge students in ways for which they don’t yet see the need. In coming posts, we will unpack the issues some more, and the best ways to address them from our experience.

Dr. Erik Benson


The Permanent Detour: Underemployment’s Long-Term Effects on the Careers of College Grads (Boston: Burning Glass Technologies, 2018).