How Higher Education Is Negatively Impacting Study Abroad

I recently read “Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids – And What We Can Do About It” by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus (see book at end of post.) It challenged me to think about how higher education in the United States is impacting study abroad, although this book does not once mention study abroad. It is a must read for anyone who is struggling with the reality of exponentially increasing education costs, budget cuts and the politics of tenure.

One can argue that the United States’ approach to higher education is resulting in higher costs for study abroad. Obviously, there are exceptions to the examples that I provide below and I applaud those schools that lead, for the right reasons, in creating affordable and academically meaningful experiences abroad for students. Nevertheless, here is how higher education may be sending us down a path that is becoming increasingly difficult to reverse:

1) Many U.S. higher education institutions recruit international students as a revenue source to offset ongoing budget issues, as evidenced by the recent discussions on the ethics of paying overseas recruiters based on headcount.  These non-immigrants are at risk of being treated, in a worse case scenario, predominantly as a revenue stream rather than as part of a larger strategy to internationalize a campus. In addition, many larger institutions will recruit international students to teach lower level courses, in some cases providing little to no training regarding the differences in teaching methods across cultures. Unfortunately, using international education as a financial tactic has spilled over into study abroad.  Many institutions send their students abroad, yet the message, whether directly communicated or not, is to “make money.”  Faculty and administrators are under tremendous pressure to drive revenue as a priority, as opposed to driving a critical need to develop global citizens first and foremost.  Let’s face it – academia is a business and these issues are often the result of challenging budgets and indifferent leadership.

2) Tenure can be very harmful to study abroad. Why?  Because the cost of tenured or tenure track faculty typically contribute to the hike in tuition at any institution (hence the nearly 70% part time faculty teaching rate in the US.) This is not to criticize tenured or tenure track faculty or their academic achievements and commitment to educating others. It is simply a fact of the business of academia. When tenured faculty don’t retire in a time frame that allows for new faculty to join the institution (at a lower wage), the result is often a tuition increase. Tuition is a direct costs to our students, and for many, this cost plus travel, insurance, accommodation, and all the other necessary fees required in study abroad can propel potential participants into a financial arena that they simply cannot handle.

3) Our nation’s intense focus insurance and risk management results in increasing dollars being spent in this area. This is an American phenomenon and one that costs us all more, including our study abroad students. Despite the economic challenges, we are being asked to do more with less.  For many, this results in more financial risk for institutions and greater risk of personal safety abroad, because many are cutting corners to ensure enrollment. I do not see this changing anytime soon and therefore suggest that true partnerships with these third parties be part of any study abroad program’s planning process.

4)  We fail to remind ourselves that study abroad is an academic experience, first and foremost! It is not uncommon to see inflated program fees that are a result of padding the program with non-essential activities that could be offered during free time abroad (at the student’s own personal and financial discretion.)  The competitive nature of “Keeping Up With the Study Abroad Joneses” pushes institutions to focus on program enhancement versus a strong academic experience at a cost effective price.

I realize that this is a touchy subject. I would love to hear your thoughts on how the structure of US higher education can harm (or boost) study abroad.

Here is the book that prompted this post.  I’d highly recommend it!



  1. New York’s attorney general is investigating fifteen universities, including ivy leagues, for allegedly participating in illegal practices that resulted in the colleges receiving additional financial compensation from students participating in study abroad (May 2011).

    Please sign the ClearCause petition for federal guidelines to protect America's youth and students who travel, exchange and study abroad.

  2. Hannah Covert says:

    Unfortunately, your post doesn't strike me as controversial at all! All the issues you mention are familiar. And because study abroad is often not viewed as an integral part of an institution's academic mission, some study abroad offices are chronically understaffed and are made to "pay their own way" to the detriment of the students and faculty involved.

    • Missy Gluckmann says:

      I'm an advocate of an internationalization fee of $5 or $10 per student per semester to support university wide internationalization initiatives and faculty/staff training.

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