More American students are studying abroad, but is it enough?

We live in a time of viral globalization. And so much is said about the need for a global perspective to succeed in just about any industry – healthcare, technology, manufacturing and entertainment, to name a few – that it’s surprising how many total number of American students studying abroad is still relatively small. There are, however, pockets of strong growth among students that focus on STEM degrees, many Asian destinations, and non-credit education programs.

According to the most recent Institute of International Educationit’s Open doors report, nearly 290,000 American students received credits to study abroad in 2013, a record high and a 2.1% increase over the previous year. The number of American students studying abroad has more than doubled in the past 15 years. Despite these increases, less than 10% of all US college students study abroad during their undergraduate years.

Study Abroad Destinations

Not surprisingly, Europe is the destination for more than half (53%) of the American population who study abroad. The three main destinations – United Kingdom (13%), Italy (10%) and Spain (9%) – account for almost a third of students. They are followed by France and China, at 6% and 5% respectively.

While the UK has seen the largest increase in the number of Americans studying abroad, there has also been double-digit growth in the number of Americans studying in South Africa, Denmark, South Korea South, in Peru and Thailand. There was strong growth in Costa Rica and Ireland, as well as a continued rebound in Japan. However, Asia and Latin America are rapidly becoming new hotspots for American higher education abroad.

According to Open doors report, study abroad growth in Asia increased by 23%, now accounting for 12% of all US students. Interest in an undergraduate experience in Asia has steadily increased alongside the region’s economic growth. China is increasingly being promoted by universities as a destination for study abroad, research, and non-credit education programs such as volunteer work or internships. Asia’s popularity has grown in other places too – Japan, India and South Korea are also among the top 20 destinations for American students.

Similarly, destinations in Latin America and the Caribbean grew by 13% and the region now has 16% of total American students abroad, the second largest group after Europe. Proximity to the United States, in addition to diplomatic, economic and historical ties, has increased student interest, according to the abstract of the report. Costa Rica, Argentina, Mexico, Ecuador and Peru are all among the top 20 destinations for American students.

A UNESCO Institute for Statistics 2014 report focuses on students pursuing full-time studies at foreign universities. The report said there were a total of 60,292 “internationally mobile students,” defined as having temporary residence in their country of study, from the United States pursuing higher education. By far the most popular destination for full degrees abroad remains the UK, with 14,652 students studying there. The second highest concentration of American university students is in Canada, with 7,470 students. The other foreign countries where to obtain a diploma are Germany (3,884), France (3,204), Australia (2,876) and New Zealand (2,238).

In both reports, the UK emerges as the dominant destination for American students, whether for temporary study abroad programs or for those pursuing full education. Several top schools in England and Scotland are well known for training American students. the University of St Andrews, Scotland (where I study), has the highest percentage of Americans in its student body, at around 15%. The near and much bigger Edinburgh University has more than 2,000 Americans, about 6% of its total population. In England, world famous Oxford and Cambridge Universities as well as London School of Economics have over 3,500 US students combined.

Demographics of overseas students

What is driving this growth in higher education? According to Open doors report, the answer is students majoring in STEM subjects. For the first time ever, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) majors outnumber students abroad in other major fields, accounting for 23% in 2013, followed by social science majors (22% ) and in commerce (20%).

STEM fields have grown 9% overall since last year, significantly outpacing the growth of other fields. Health Sciences, in particular, saw a 15% increase, along with Agriculture and Mathematics and Computing (both up 13%). Engineering grew by 6% and physical and life sciences by 5%. According to the IIE, substantial growth in this area is expected to continue as study abroad programs will need to offer more options integrating STEM programs.

Importantly, popular subjects vary by length of study – of the 46,090 students alone who studied full-time (actually earning a degree abroad, rather than a semester abroad ), in 2012, the majority favored the humanities (27%) and social sciences (21%) alongside STEM subjects (24%).

Although the diversity of overseas student participation has increased in recent years, minority students are still vastly underrepresented in study abroad, accounting for only 24% of total overseas students in 2013. Women made up 65% of American students abroad in the same year, the IIE study reports. By compiling data from multiple reports, the National Association of Foreign Student Advisors (NAFSA) published nationally study abroad rates by state, which found that most students going abroad are residents of Washington D.C. (6%) and West Virginia (5.9%). The states with the lowest percentage turnout are Mississippi (0.4%) and Alaska (0.2%).

There has also been an increase in non-credit education, as American students increasingly seek short-term jobs, internships, volunteer opportunities, and student research abroad. Not only are these excellent educational opportunities, but they help provide students with international experiences and a global network. Although most students pursue non-credit studies during summer or winter break, Open doors report found that a total of more than 15,000 students were participating in such programs at more than 300 institutions.

While the overall growth of American study abroad remains slow, current trends are a good indication of expanding programs abroad. New York University is the first institution for the total number of American students abroad with more than 4,000, followed by the University of Texas – Austin and the University of Southern California with nearly 3,000.

Initiatives to increase the number of American students abroad have been launched in recent years, including the IIE Study Abroad Generation, which was launched in early 2014 as a national campaign to double the number of students studying abroad by the end of the decade. More than 300 American colleges and universities have already got involved, as well as several higher education institutions in other countries. the 100,000 strong in the Americas and 100,000 strong in China the programs aim for this number of American students to study there.

Whether pursuing a full education abroad or temporarily studying abroad, the number of Americans yearning for a more global education must increase if today’s students are to gain valuable international perspectives.

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