Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Americans and Study Abroad

When I was a college student in the 1980s (the first time) I had no ambitions to do a study abroad program.  I'd already made the leap from a smaller town with a population of about 34,000 to the nearest big city with a population of  about 500,000 which one could call my first migration.  That and trips to British Columbia, Canada to see my aunt were as much mobility as I wanted back then.  In doing my research into Anglophones migrants in Japan, I found that this was pretty common among the people I interviewed.  Almost all of them came from rural areas and regional towns or cities and many of them did exactly what I did:  move from a smaller place to a larger one and then abroad either as part of their university studies or just after finishing up a degree program. Who knew back in 1989 when I was graduated from the University of Washington that I would then move to a city in a faraway country with a population of over 2 million.

How things change from one generation to the next.  Both Frenchlings went abroad for university.  They left France for Canada - a journey that their French ancestors made in the 17th century.  From Montreal the elder Frenchling went to the US and is working on her Masters degree in Seattle while the younger just finished her studies in Osaka and while be returning to Montreal in the fall to finish her undergraduate degree.  Aside from the patterns of mobility there is another that I find interesting and it has to do with gender.  On both the French and American sides of our family, the women tend to have more formal education (academic degrees) than the men with only a few exceptions.

All this pondering about the past led me to ask a deceptively simple but very hard to answer question:  what motivates students to study abroad?  That question is so broad that I decided to limit my research into what motivates American students to study abroad?  In the program for the younger Frenchling's end of studies ceremony there were over 350 American students at her Japanese university with the next largest groups being Canadians and Australians with 22 students each. (The younger Frenchling by the way was counted as one of the Canadian students which tells me that some of those "American" students may also be originally from countries other than the US.)

According to the OECD 2016 report Education at a Glance only 6% of students in OECD countries at the college/university level study abroad.  On average in 2014 an OECD country hosted 3 international students for every student they sent abroad (p. 332).  One could speculate that students from OECD countries feel that they don't have to go abroad to meet international diversity because the diversity comes to them.  That was, indeed, a goal of the younger Frenchling's Japanese university where the Japanese students were encouraged to interact with the foreign students as much as possible.

 My daughter reports that some of the most interesting discussions she had with Japanese students had to do with bi-culturalism and dual nationality.  How could she be French and American?  Their conclusion was that she was some odd variety of haafu - a term that usually refers to a multi-racial individual but in this case was broadened to include culture/nationality.  The conclusion is less important than the discussion in which both sides learned something.  My daughter had to consider that what she took for granted was odd to others, and the others had to think about a world where it really was OK to be bi-cultural or bi-national.

According to NAFSA the US has a very small number of student studying abroad  - about 300,000 in 2015 which is about 1.5 per cent of all US university students.  Furthermore, US racial and ethnic minorities are seriously under-represented in study abroad programs.  I looked at those numbers and I was shocked.  My little center-right heart be damned, this is something begging for affirmative action.

Where do American students go when they do study abroad?  Europe, mostly:  And then Latin America and Asia. American students still dream London or Paris dreams.  That is a migration flow that goes back to the 18th century and you can read more about that in David McCullough's fine book The Greater Journey.

Is anyone in the US worried about these low numbers of American students studying abroad?  Well, there are certainly editorials in newspapers and magazines about it.  I dislike most of them because some journalists seem happy to imply that this is some great national failure which furthers the stereotype of Americans as insular, provincial, and uneducated.  I am more persuaded by the US State Department that does pay attention to this and actually has a list of financial resources for study abroad on their website.  There are scholarships and the like available.  I am sure there are others that I don't know about.

All the money in the world, however, won't help if American students aren't motivated.  Why did I never consider it back when I was a bright-eyed college student?  Looking back I think was a combination of finances and the fact that I didn't know anyone at my high school or university who had studied abroad. I did know young women who went abroad as au pairs. So work abroad was possible but study seemed to belong to people on another planet.  It just didn't seem possible for people like me (and, yes, that statement deserves closer attention but I will save it for another essay.)

Motivation for study abroad (or anything for that matter) is a complicated beast and it is painfully difficult to determine with any accuracy but researchers have looked at it. There was a 2006 paper by C. Sanchez et al that compared the motivations for and perceived barriers to studying abroad among US, French, and Chinese students.   They found that the top 3 motivations for Americans students for going abroad were:  new experiences and bettering themselves professionally and socially. (p. 35)  This was the desire for adventure mixed with a sense that going abroad would be good for careers and social position.

The top barriers for US students in descending order were:  family, finances, psychological and social barriers. (p. 38)  What is fascinating to me is that it was the French students who put financial barriers first and then family.  What did the American students mean when they said family was a barrier to leaving the country?  They indicated that they had family obligations and didn't wish to to be too far away from people they would miss and who needed them.  Both the French and American students agreed with regard to finances that they would have to go into debt to be able to study abroad and that "Study abroad was a luxury." (p. 39)

Looking at a more recent paper by J. Luo, and D. Jamieson-Drake which was published in 2015 the authors also looked at motivation and intent of American students.  Their study was limited but in their introduction they summarized some of the findings of  recent research and some are surprising; others less so.  American women are much more likely to go abroad than men and, yes, minority students are under-represented:

"From 2002 to 2012, for instance, nearly two-thirds of study abroad participants were women in each of the past 10 years, while only one-third of them were men. Also, Caucasian students studying abroad outnumbered minority students by a margin of almost 4–1 during the same time period,"

Luo and Jamieson-Drake also cited research showing that students from liberal arts colleges studying humanities were much more likely to go abroad than students from research universities or those studying engineering.  As for ethnic and racial differences, studies showed that Asian-American men (not women) were much less likely than white men or women to go abroad.  And while the parent's level of education influenced and increased white students intent to go abroad, the reverse was found in African-American students.

To shed some light on these findings  Luo and Jamieson-Drake  looked at students at just one university. When they looked at the general student population over those three year they found that "[n]early 90 % of students indicated their home was over 100 miles away from college."  That indicates a first migration within national borders.  Almost all of them were not studying in their home towns or cities. "Approximately 42 % of students in the 2005 entering cohort indicated a strong intent to study abroad, and about half in both the 2006 and 2007 entering cohorts reported so." (p. 39)

Their results were pretty consistent with other research.  Women were much more likely than men to intend to study abroad.  Liberal arts students were also much more likely to intend to go abroad than science or engineering students.  But they found other factors that I found fascinating:

"Additionally, artistic ability and expectations to improve understanding of other
countries and cultures, to join a social fraternity or sorority, to be satisfied with college, and
to participate in student clubs or groups showed a positive influence on intent to study
abroad, while mathematical ability and helping to promote racial and cultural understanding
displayed a negative correlation with intent to study abroad." (p. 40)

That was intent to study abroad but what about actual participation?   Well, intent was an important factor in following through.  They found that most students who were motivated to go abroad actually went. But of those who did intend to go abroad but didn't realize their intent   "off-campus study in the United States and involvement in a music or theater group and the student government negatively affected their participation in study abroad. For students with a weak intent to study abroad upon college entry, parental income and involvement in a political club and club sports had a negative impact on their participation in study abroad." (p. 42)

Lastly I looked at another study of business students at one university by J. Pope et al. In their introduction they said there was a very high number of American students with an intent to study abroad but they cited research that showed only about 3% of Generation Y students (those students born in the 1980s and 90s) actually followed through and left the country.  What could explain this difference? The authors argue that it is "temporal distance" with intent being measured in the first year of school and study abroad usually occurring in their 3rd or even 4th year.  A lot changes over 3 or 4 years. Personally, I wonder if it could also be a result of the Great Recession of 2008/2009.  The first two studies I examined here were prior that period while the Pope et al study looked at students in the period after the world economy had tanked.  How many American freshman entered university in 2005 wanting to go abroad and found that they couldn't?  A phenomenon cited in the paper and calle“Yes! [I would love to do that] But damn! [I can't do it]” 

Pope et al agreed that more women than men study abroad.  Their hypothesis was that Generation Y women are more likely to value "personal growth" than men.  They also hypothesized that parent's level of education, prior international experience, income and age, were also important factors in wanting to study outside the country.

What did they find in their study?  They found no difference between American men and women business majors intent to study abroad, nor did they find much difference in participation  For this population they also found that the parent's education level and income were not important factors in either intent or participation.  However, when they looked more broadly at all majors they did find that more women than men intend to study abroad and follow through. They also found that prior international experience was a factor in studying abroad but that "personal growth" was not one of the main motivators of those who had lived outside the US.

What to make of all of these studies that agree and disagree with each other?  Think of it as a blind men and the elephant scenario with researchers describing the different parts to each other. The size of the samples are important as are the boundaries they put around the study.  Context matters, too:  a business school in the American Midwest has a very different population than a liberal arts college on the West or East Coast.

But here are a few thoughts and questions I took away from this brief foray into the subject:

1.  There is no one answer to the question of what motivates American students to go abroad.  Positive intent and participation are multi-causal.  So throwing money at the issue is not going to solve it.  In particular, how do you persuade a student who has family obligations that it's OK to ignore them? Would you even want to?

2. The picture these studies paint of the "average" American students abroad is one of a young woman from a liberal arts school getting a liberal arts or business degree.  That is something to think about.  I am not convinced that this is a matter of women valuing personal growth more than men. Just as racial and ethnic minorities are under-represented in study abroad programs, so too it seems are men (though to a lesser extent).  Why is that?

3.  Why so few engineering and science majors?  That one is a puzzle that merits a closer look. And the connection to sororities and fraternities that the first study found?  An odd one and I would like to know more.

4.  A "desire for new experiences, adventure, and personal growth" is too damn broad.  And I'm guilty of this myself since I asked it in my own survey.  What does a desire for personal growth really mean?  In what way does the individual wish to grow?  Could it be that personal growth mean having a better social status or being able to pursue a career one likes?  Or could it be that personal growth is a response to a moral imperative and shorthand for "People who don't go abroad are lacking somehow and I don't want to be one of the provincial. So I guess I'd better get out there and get my international experience." All this needs more clarification, in my opinion.

5.  And what about the desire of many universities to lure students from abroad?  For whose benefit?  The international students or the regular students?  For the regular students it is a way of having them exposed to international diversity without leaving home.  Is that sufficient for "international experience?"  You tell me.

6.  Why does Europe continue to be the number one destination for American students?  Some of that may be because it is familiar and because some very influential American writers, artists went and wrote about it in books that are still part of high school and college curriculums.

7.  Are there important differences between Americans who study abroad and those who leave to work abroad?  Yes, studying in a foreign country can lead to staying and building a new life but not always.

And that is as much thinking as I want to do after 3 cups of coffee on a Sunday morning.  As always, your thoughts would be much appreciated.

Bon weekend!


Seniorexpat said...

Virginia, many of my friends are shocked to learn how FATCA hinders the professional opportunities available to young U.S. persons abroad. Those persons should be warned that current legislation keeps them from getting any jobs involving greater responsibility (signature authority), because they would put the respective company under IRS surveillance. This does not seem to be widely known, and of course, deserves protest, as your own year-long efforts have shown.

Inaka Nezumi said...

I did a year in high school, not college. I'm not sure I had any clear reason to go, other than it sounded fun. Ticking through the list of factors you listed:

1) The program offered free tuition, room and board, which was key to being able to go. Given family finances, if it had not been essentially free, I would not have been able to even think of going.

2) I was already finishing up high school far from home, so had already experienced some form of migration, and a different social milieu than the one I grew up in. A preview of college, more or less.

3) The program required that one already have been accepted to a university before going abroad. (It was basically a "gap year," an extra year of high school before starting college.) So there was no pressure to perform while abroad, no way to lose for the experience. On the flip side, there was also no practical gain to be had from the experience either -- couldn't even list it on one's college applications, due to timing of the application deadlines and acceptance notifications. It was a pure, no-strings-attached freebie.

So why did I do it? Well, under the circumstances, why the heck not?

Temperamentally, I guess I had no resistance to moving around. The area I grew up in was a poor rural one, so I had always known that any real hope of getting a decent job was going to require moving away, and had always expected to do so eventually. Also, a close family friend was from the country I was going to, so I had some generalized interest in the country due to that, I guess.

So, I guess most of this ticks the boxes you discuss, except that I was male and a science major. (And fortuitously, I discovered that the foreign school I went to offered some courses more advanced than available in American high schools, so that made the year an academically productive one, in addition to all the intangible benefits of the experience. It also made me angry to learn how bad American elementary and secondary education was in comparison -- though the US does very well at the university level and above. But anyway, it was not part of the reason for going, since I did not know that in advance.)

Inaka Nezumi said...

Oops, should be obvious, but

'I did a year in high school'

should be

'I did a year abroad in high school'

Andrew said...

While I haven't looked at the numbers, my general understanding is that Canada has a similar imbalance (our universities market themselves extensively for international students). The youth work exchange agreements Canada has with many countries also has an imbalance.

So definitely room for more research and, given the benefits of international experience, more ways to encourage students to study abroad.

With respect to French students in Quebec, a big incentive is that they pay the same (low) tuition as Quebec students, not the usual higher fees for other international students.

DL NELSON said...

My daughter, who did most of her undergraduate work in Germany and her masters in Scotland just went to her 30th Boston Latin High School Reunion (first public school in the US which has produced presidents, philosophers, writers, musicians etc.) Many of her classmates who led "normal" lives expressed envy at her experiences. I suspect though, because I kept taking her overseas from the time she was nine, she was more open and when she did her 13th year of high school in Germany, I sold the flat and moved to Europe she thought it normal.

Inaka Nezumi said...

Following onto Andrew's comment, Japan has a program that offers entire undergraduate educations for free to foreign students, at some of its best universities. (Google 'Global 30' for details.)

This level of competition for international students seems a new development. Definitely of another order from when we were kids.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Seniorexpat, That is an excellent point and it leads to two questions: why is it not widely known and why does it does not factor into the decision to study or work abroad. I would speculate that they don't know before they leave because homelanders in general are unaware of it. As for the second my sense is that most who leave the US to work are not high earners. Certainly as students this makes sense. As for those who work abroad most are going as teachers or au pairs or IT people and their incomes are well below the earned income exclusion. Over time, of course, they save and make careers and so on. And then one day they are in a world of you know what.

Nezumi-san, If I may ask, where did you go when you were in high school? Sounds like it was a fortuitous conjunction of event - you had no impediments, you had a connection in the potential host country, and here was an opportunity that was affordable. Why not go?

Very interesting that you were from a rural area and moved to go to high school (is that correct?) That is common in France where the kids from the country go to high school in the city and are boarded at a school dorm. My mother was one who had one foot in the city and the other in a rural area of Central Washington where my great-grandparents had their farm (nearest town/village was Naches which has a population of about 800).

Andrew, you've inspired me to take another look at Canada. Yes, Canada is known for being very welcoming of foreign students. For the US students it also has the advantage of being less expensive and close (relatively speaking) to home. Montreal for that matter is ony about 6 hours from Paris (Tokyo is 12). And you are absolutely correct about those tuition waivers for French students at Quebec universities. The elder Frenchling benefitted from that and the younger for a few years. There have been some recent changes to that program - now the French students pay what other Canadians pay at Quebec universities, not what the Quebec natives themselves pay. So my younger daughter pays little more than her sister did but not what the other international students pay.

Donna-Lane, I have heard of the Boston Latin School. Very fine. Some of the work I've read talk about a "culture of migration" and they are usually referring to countries. I think your example shows that culture at the family level. It's one thing to leave the country during or after university and quite another to have mobility be a taken for granted part of life. That takes us back to that quotation I used in the post "Studying abroad is a luxury." That implies that it is something that is not terribly practical and only for those who can afford to be impractical. That may (I speculate) lead to a psychological barrier against going abroad. Working abroad, on the other hand, may be easier to sell as a practical solution: a first job earning money and perhaps paying off student debt. This ignores that the two are connected. You make a lot of connections during a study abroad program. Many countries allow students to work part-time in the host country and even encourage getting a first job there. The younger Frenchling got her internship in Japan, for example, through her Japanese university. The school has ties to Japanese companies and foreign consulates that are happy to have foreign students around for a few months. Perhaps those things would encourage more US students that studying abroad is indeed a very good career move.

Inaka Nezumi said...

Hi Victoria,

"If I may ask, where did you go when you were in high school?"

Sent you a PM.

Jill said...

Dang, you are a curious writing machine! Have you had an academic career or just always searching and questioning? Anyway, admirable and you spawn thoughtful responses and discussions. I compare my "lite" blog, which seems to be more about the photos these days. But I try to throw in environmental messages.
Anyway, to comment on your interesting post...not sure how different things are now - has social media/internet/constant connectedness changed things for students's desire to study abroad? I think it's a very different experience now than when I was in college in the last 1970s/early 1980s. I did a spring abroad in Paris and then a couple years later a semester in London. Liberal arts degree, was in a sorority (although don't think that had any bearing?), a parent with a post-graduate degree who promoted travel as broadening when we grew up. Finances weren't an issue for us (ha unlike for me now). I wanted adventure, broadening of experience/ exposure, to work on my French that I studied all through junior high, high school, and a bit of college (don't ask me to speak or write French now though), and I wanted access to the great museums to supplement my art history studies.
On the math/engineer question - well....I think they tend to be more focused on lab work, project work, etc. that I don't think lends itself as well to travel abroad, unless there are programs specifically geared towards STEM students. A friend's daughter, who was a double physics/communications major at Yale (not an affluent family, scholarship student) went aboard to Switzerland to Cerne (sp?) for physics program.
Anyway, I need to get outside and putter in the yard/garden on a beautiful holiday here, too much time in front of the PC! Might join your mom and folks at the farm for the solar eclipse in August. Some geeks are trying to lure me to Detroit Lake to view and then write/blog about their studies re the ecliple. I digress. Always enjoy stopping by your blog but social media overload keeps me away for long stretches. Best from sunny SEattle.

Jill said...

And apologies for the typos....

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Jill, I would love to be in sunny Seattle right now. It's sunny in Osaka but it's also getting hot and humid. I still find the combination of heat and rain to be unsettling. I could shower outside during the rainy season here. Too strange.

I do like to ask questions and oddly enough I get a big thrill when I find something that questions or completely overturns my preconceived notions about something. I used to worry a lot about being right, especially in public. These days I shrug and say So what if I'm wrong. :-)

I think you are on to something about the math/science/engineering students. In this study available on-line I found an explanation which might account for some of their lower participation.

"I did, however, find a significant negative effect of majors in engineering and pro-fessional areas of study on intent to participate in study abroad compared to social science majors. Academic requirements for engineering and for many of the professional areas (e.g., architecture, premed, and nursing) require a strict sequence of classes and many labs—structural conditions that may affect students’ perceived and/or actual ability to study abroad and graduate on time (Carlson, et al., 1990). For these reasons, engineering and professional majors may not consider the possibility of study abroad."

Who Plans (Not) to Study Abroad? An Examination of U.S. Student Intent (PDF Download Available). Available from: [accessed May 30, 2017].

Inaka Nezumi said...

I think that may be a good explanation as far as coursework goes. I would note that with the increasingly international nature of scientific collaborations these days, a science student may well end up going abroad to do some work on an experiment, say, then return to their home institution to finish up degree requirements. So their time at CERN or Cerro Tololo wouldn't count as "study abroad" under the traditional classification, because they weren't doing coursework there.

Not to mention the international career opportunities for science and engineering majors once they graduate. But of course that would purely count as work abroad, not study.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Nezumi-san, Thank you for your perspective. I know that you were a science student and you did go abroad. You also raise a very important point which is the difference between BA students and MA/PhD students. Going back to the OECD report the number of American students going abroad at the PhD level is much higher. So it could be just a question of when they go.