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 called “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.