Changing Rationales for Short-term Education Abroad Programming

As U.S. education abroad enrollments have shifted in favor of short-term programming, so too has the broader rationale for why institutions are investing in education abroad initiatives. Whether the popularity of short-term programming is being driven by changing student interests and demands, or whether institutional leadership and increasing faculty engagement are dictating and guiding the direction of program development, the fundamental rationales for why short-term education abroad programs are being pursued and how they are developed are most certainly changing.  Because of these shifting interests, there are now arguably four broad rationales driving education abroad program development.

1. Language acquisition and cultural knowledge
2. Intercultural competency development
3. Discipline specific learning
4. Experiential learning

For decades, institutions have leveraged education abroad programming with the goal to enhance student learning in the areas of language acquisition and cultural knowledge. Developing proficiency in a foreign language was once a major consideration for students in choosing to study abroad. This is less often the case today and in effect, the majority of established education abroad programs no longer impose a language pre-requisite. While foreign language learning remains very much a central and viable rationale for developing and promoting education abroad, it is no longer the leading rationale for doing so.

Developing intercultural competency has also been a long-held and widely regarded rationale driving education abroad.  With the development of the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) and other measures of intercultural competence, much attention and effort of late has been given to assessing the extent to which education abroad participation can actually lead to measurable gains in this area. The assumption has been that education abroad programming can be strategically leveraged to support the development of global-ready graduates who are able to work effectively in intercultural settings.

As short-term program participation has increased, particularly in the area of faculty-directed programming, the rationales for education abroad have expanded to include an emphasis on discipline-specific learning. Innovative models for faculty-directed programming have allowed more faculty members to design short-programs abroad with the primary purpose of engaging their students in the study of their disciplines in an international context.  It is one thing to study Italian art history in a U.S. classroom, for example, but quite another to see the art work first hand and to interact with members of the communities that produced it. An increasing number of faculty members recognize the importance of graduating students who understand the international dimensions of their chosen disciplines and the need to establish and nurture global networks to support future careers. Short-term education abroad programs have provided these faculty members with an ideal means through which they can jumpstart discipline-specific, international learning.

In much the same way, short-term education abroad programs have presented a means through which to involve students in other forms of engaged learning, such as international internships, global service-learning, and undergraduate research. Campus offices that may have once been removed from education abroad programming, such as career centers, service-learning centers, and undergraduate research offices, are now active partners in developing successful short-term programs abroad that provide students with an array of opportunities to develop career readiness skills, civic engagement skills, and international research networks.

In short, the rationales of education abroad programming have expanded from long-held loyalties to semester-length and full-year programs designed primarily for language acquisition and intercultural competency development to include short-term programs driven by expanded rationales such as discipline-specific learning and experiential learning. All four rationales are equally viable and important, but even these are perhaps being overshadowed by the growing undercurrent within U.S. higher education that prioritizes the notion that one pursues higher education solely for the purposes of career readiness and employability. In other words, the value of education abroad, whether short-term or otherwise, is being increasingly scrutinized by students (and their parents) on terms of its value with regard to enhancing one’s long-term career prospects.

Anthony C. Ogden is executive director of Education Abroad and Exchanges at Michigan State University, which is one of the largest education abroad offices in the US. Ogden earned his master’s degree in international and intercultural management at the SIT Graduate Institute and his PhD at The Pennsylvania State University in educational theory and policy with a dual title in comparative and international education. A career international educator, Ogden has published numerous articles and book chapters on important topics related to international education, including a new co-edited book, International higher education’s scholar-practitioners: Bridging research and practice.