Why Do So Few American Students Study Abroad?

Why is that a problem?

December 5, 2022 by Dean Hoke: In the newest edition of the 2022 Open Doors Report, US university’s international student enrollment shows encouraging signs. International students coming to the United States are reported at 948,519, which nears the pre-pandemic level. However, the number of Americans studying abroad in 2020-21 was 14,549 compared to 162,633 in 2019-20 and the high watermark of 350,000 in 2018-19.

The chart below shows how long US students study overseas.

Of the 350,000 students in 2018-19 who studied overseas, the majority either studied abroad for a summer or a short term.

What is the profile of the American student who studies abroad?

The number of US students who study abroad represents only 2.7% of the American university students who attend four-year and above institutions. Students who study abroad tend to be juniors or seniors in undergraduate school, female, Caucasian, have financial means, and study in Europe.

What countries have the largest number of students studying abroad?

T.I.M.E. Association, located in France, conducted a study in 2021 of UNESCO mobility data which reported 5.6 million international students worldwide to determine the top countries with the most outgoing students studying in another country. They looked at the “long-term mobility of students to complete a whole study cycle and acquire a degree (Bachelor, Master or PhD) abroad. The top countries university students leave to study abroad are:

  • China – 993,367
  • India – 375,055
  • Germany – 122,538
  • Viet Nam – 108.527
  • South Korea – 101,774
  • France – 99,488
  • United States – 84,349 (long-term studies)

Students from other countries study abroad primarily due to the:

  • Future Employment Opportunities, be it at home or abroad
  • Quality of institution and program
  • Meet a diverse range of people
  • Study and learn differently
  • Self-reliance and being on your own
  • Meeting new friends and lifelong networking
  • Seeing your culture from a different point of view

How important are students studying abroad to the business community as future employees?

Businesses worldwide are putting a higher emphasis on international experience. Most big and small companies are trying to attract business and partnerships with international partners.  In a 2014 survey titled U.S. Business Needs for Employees with International Expertise, 800 executives in US companies were surveyed to identify the demand for corporate employees with international competence, including international skills and/or knowledge of foreign languages and world areas. The results of the 2014 survey call for a continuing need for international business education in the US, with increased emphasis on intercultural communication, foreign language skills, and international experience. The 800 represented a broad cross-section of Industries and the number of employees.

Some interesting facts come out:

  • 39% failed to fully exploit international business opportunities due to insufficient internationally competent personnel in the past five years
  • 39% have no foreign offices, and all international operations are handled in the US
  • 43% state that overall business would increase a great deal if more international expertise were available on staff
  • 60% state that an appreciation for cross-cultural differences is of great importance for professional staff, followed by Understanding country legal and government requirements (59%) and understanding of local markets and business practices (58%)
  • 83% state their company will place a greater emphasis on international competence among management and employees over the next ten years

Additional studies support that studying abroad helps employers and helps students get jobs. In 2016, The Institute for the International Education of Students (IES), founded in 1950, conducted a comprehensive survey of 1205 of its alumni. 

Here are the key points from the study:

  • 93% who entered the workforce were employed within six months
  • 89% of those who entered graduate school earned admissions in their first or second-choice school
  • 50% felt that their IES Abroad Program experience helped them to get this first job

The American Passport Project

How can we encourage and support students to study abroad?

In a recent interview with Higher Ed Without Borders  (in which I am a co-host), we asked Dr. Allan Goodman, CEO of the IIE, about a new program they established in 2021 titled The American Passport Project. Dr. Goodman commented that studying abroad is one of the best ways that students can acquire global skills and create personal and professional opportunities. Furthermore, it’s a part of IIE’s mission to increase participation and diversity in studying abroad and extend these benefits to all students regardless of socioeconomic status.  However, students of limited financial means find it more difficult to participate in studying abroad due to financial hurdles, which could bar them from moving forward.

The American Passport Project plans to have enabled 10,000 students to be awarded passports by the end of this decade. IIE will help 1,000 college students obtain U.S. passports annually by awarding funds to 40 U.S. colleges and universities in the IIE Network. Each institution will identify 25 of its first-year students who are eligible for Pell grants. Eligibility will be limited to first-year students to ensure that they have ample time remaining in their college career and receive guidance from their advisors to map out a study abroad plan. Competitive institutions will demonstrate grant need, support obtained, and impact on study abroad participation.

First Year Results

  • In the inaugural year, nearly 200 institutions applied for the grant to support students obtaining U.S. passports. These institutions informed IIE of the various ways they could utilize the grant to support targeted student populations.
  • Forty institutions were selected, and more than 50% of institutions chosen represent minority-serving student populations (HBCU, HSI, MSI) or are community colleges.
  • Nearly 50% of U.S. states are represented (33% South, 32% Midwest, 25% Northeast, and 10% West).
  • The majority are expanding their diversity, equity, access, and inclusion efforts by targeting these top 4 student populations: students with demonstrated financial need, racial/ethnic minorities, students who have never traveled abroad, and first-generation students.

In a follow-up interview with Lindsay Calvert, IIE’s lead for the Passport Project, I asked about the program’s status and the number of students approved by IIE as of November 2022.

  • One thousand one hundred twenty-two students have been nominated by their awarding institutions and approved by IIE to be supported with the IIE-granted funds to help them obtain their U.S. passport and engage them in study abroad planning.
    • 778 students from the first cohort
  • 344 from the second cohort)
  • Some institutions can quickly able to identify, nominate, and confirm students. Others have been challenged with their outreach and recruitment, so this process can span over a year to fulfill the goal of 25 students per campus.
  • Since the Passport Project aims to support first-year students, they anticipate them to study abroad in the 2023/24 academic year and subsequent years of their undergraduate term.

The Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Program

In November 2022, The Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Program Act of 2022 , was introduced by U.S. Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and U.S. Representatives Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) and John Katko (R-N.Y.) The act seeks to expand access to study abroad for U.S. college students by enhancing the State Department’s Increase and Diversify Education Abroad for U.S. Students (IDEAS) program and formally renaming it as the “Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Program.” Inspired by the vision of the late Sen. Paul Simon (D–Ill.) and the recommendations of the congressionally-appointed Commission on the Abraham Lincoln Study Abroad Fellowship Program, the legislation would advance four national goals:   

  1. One million U.S. college students will study abroad annually for credit
  2. Study abroad participants will more closely represent the demographics of the undergraduate population in terms of gender, ethnicity, students with disabilities, income level, and field of study
  3. A significantly greater proportion of study abroad will occur in nontraditional destinations outside Western Europe  
  4. Higher education institutions will make studying abroad a critical component of a quality higher education

U.S. higher education institutions could apply for federal grants, individually or in a consortium, to help them institute programs that would move the country toward achieving these objectives. 


I have long wondered why so few Americans go overseas to study, even for a summer. Aren’t they seeing the benefits that students from other countries see? Are they not aware that by studying abroad, they increase their chances of graduation and employment? Perhaps most university students are unaware of studying overseas or believe they can’t afford the cost or cannot give up a part-time job to be away for the summer.

Organizations like IIE are helping address increasing study abroad opportunities with its American Passport Program by emphasizing minorities and non-elite schools. The proposed Simon bill also helps address the issue and pushes for a million students to study abroad, but it remains to be seen if it will pass. It will take bi-partisan support and a higher public profile to get through the upcoming Congress. Last and not least are higher education institutions themselves. While the larger state institutions and elite privates have programs and resources to help promote study abroad, that is not necessarily the case with thousands of other colleges and universities. While most schools have international affairs offices, they need more personnel and budget to adequately promote or financially support students. Their priority in fundraising for such programs is lower than other needs.

We need businesses that will benefit from these students and federal and state governments to help promote and partially subsidize. If companies and governments want to compete for an increasing share of international business successfully, they need employees who have spent time abroad.

Dean Hoke is Co-Founder and Managing Partner Edu Alliance a higher education consulting firm located in Bloomington, Indiana and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Dean received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Urbana University in Ohio, his Master of Science from The University of Louisville, and a graduate of the Wharton School of Business Executive Management program. Since 1975 Dean has worked in the higher education and broadcasting industry, serving in senior leadership roles specializing in international education, marketing, communications, partnerships, and online learning.

He currently serves as Chairperson Elect of the American Association of University Administrators , Advisory Board of the School of Education, Franklin University and is Co-Host of the Podcast series Higher Ed Without Borders  and Distance Learning Roundtable. Dean is actively engaged in consulting projects in international education, branding, business intelligence, and online learning leading projects in the United States, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Dean resides in Bloomington, Indiana

Creating Campus International Allies is Essential in Challenging Times

Widener U International

By Kandy Turner, Director of International Student Services and Programs and Study Abroad and Dr. Denise Gifford, Associate Provost for Global Engagement and Dean of Students for Widener University in Pennsylvania.

As the number of U.S. high school students stagnates, universities are looking to international students to fill the seats. However, competition is high, and international students are savvy customers who weigh the options in the U.S. and abroad. More countries are entering the global higher education market and enticing students away from the U.S., and other countries, like those in the Middle East, are cutting back on scholarships abroad and opening more institutions at home. The latest Open Doors report shows that first-time international enrollees are down 3% from 2016 (Open Doors, 2018), and all signs point to this being a trend that will continue. A perceived lack of U.S. professional opportunities post-graduation for International student graduates will likely accelerate the downturn, particularly with tightened immigration regulations looming. Therefore, a focus on retention of every International student is critical.

Institutions have long measured retention rates vis-à -vis Tinto’s Theory of Departure (1975) but only recently have they begun looking at retention rates for international students. Literature on the needs of international students are plentiful, but research on how institutions are meeting those needs are scant. Services for international students historically meant basic immigration advising, orientation, and perhaps some help adjusting to the culture and life in the U.S., and, if they were lucky, the occasional outing. Fortunately, universities are beginning to expand their services to provide more support for academic writing and adjustment to U.S. classroom culture, peer mentoring and other programs to connect new international students with current international or domestic students, help understanding medical insurance, a wide array of social activities, and even support for spouses and families. However, even this is not enough. It is crucial to develop allies among colleagues and students on campus who understand and embrace international students and can help create a broadly welcoming campus climate. The challenge is that current staff and faculty may have limited international experience and limited involvement with international students, and therefore may not be quick to buy-in to the need to provide additional or altered services to this population. For a variety of reasons, many outstanding professors may have had little global exposure, and this lack of experience by faculty may cause them to, unintentionally, not understand the challenges inherent in speaking and studying in a second or third language amidst adapting and residing in a totally new culture. University staff also may have limited International experience and can be less comfortable with International students outside of the necessary but limited professional interaction. Creating a mix of opportunities for campus community members to interact with students from outside our borders is the foundation of creating International campus allies.

International Student Retention is a Campus-Wide Responsibility

At Widener, creating allies for our International students starts with a message that retention is everyone’s job and retention is the goal of every meeting with every student, something the university’s president emphasizes regularly. In student affairs, retention efforts have focused on connecting international students to the university throughout of class activities, time with faculty and staff outside the classroom, and connections with U.S. peers. The Office of International Student Services (ISS) staffed with a Director, an Assistant Director, and part-time secretary hosts over 30 programs a semester. Participation is not limited to international students; in fact, U.S. students are encouraged to attend, mingle and develop friendships with the international students during these programs. In past years, domestic students at Widener missed out on the opportunity to mix with International students in out-of-class activities whereas now every program is planned for a mix of domestic and International students so that each become more culturally adept by interacting with the other.

Student International Allies: E-Mentor Program and Orientation Group Interface

The creation of campus allies is intentional and starts before the students even arrive with an e-mentor program. Current students, international and domestic, are paired with incoming students, a student peer mentor, with whom they communicate regularly over the summer. Those conversations often result in strong friendships that continue into the students’ lives on campus. At the on-campus orientation, the international students join two other pre-orientation programs which draw primarily domestic students. They attend a picnic together and meet the same groups again during Welcome Week for a lunch cruise along the Delaware River. The students from these pre-Orientation programs; Project Lead and 1821 Experience are prepped by their staff leaders, the Office of Civic Engagement and the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, to engage with the international students. Students in each group are new to the university and merging these diverse groups early seems a natural fit, and everyone benefits. The local students, many of whom have never left the metro area, become more aware of the world, and the international students have a peer to help them navigate the transition. By spending time with the international students, the local students become allies in the effort to internationalize the campus. They tend to spread the word, bring their friends to events, and introduce more U.S. students to the international students. International students are also encouraged to attend events sponsored by Student Life and other departments, and the Office of International Students sends out a weekly e-newsletter with a list of events happening around campus and in the community. Other departments benefit from the free advertising, and the international students are more likely to attend because the ISS office encouraged them to do so.

Campus Staff and Faculty: Allies Created by Anywhere PA

One of the strongest ally building programs ISS offers is a signature, high impact practice program called “Anywhere PA.” Keenly aware that most international students never set foot inside an American home, ISS staff decided to ask some of their colleagues if they would be willing to host a small group of international students in their home and then show them around their community. Staff and faculty on campus who had already shown support for the international community were the first to agree. The results were fantastic. The students relished the glimpse into U.S. daily life—particularly the pets and children of the Widener employee—and enjoyed exploring different sections of Philadelphia and the suburbs. Students participate in whatever the family typically finds enjoyable during evening and weekend hours. Activities have included watching a Phillies game with family members while cheering along with the group and eating traditional game day snack fare. Decorating picture frames with glue guns and décor items from the region was the activity at another home where crafts are a common activity and when finished students posed for a group picture with the host and inserted it in their handmade frame for a permanent memento of the day. All in all, the faculty and staff appreciate hosting the students in their homes and getting to know them. It allows them to be on a personal name basis with a group of International students, but it also makes them better allies. The program has continued to expand. More and more faculty and staff have served as hosts with equally positive results. Now, ISS staff plugs the “Anywhere PA” program at every available opportunity, and there is a waitlist of faculty and staff eager to participate in future years.

Increased Campus Allies Fuel Enhanced International Focus

Broader conversations are beginning across campus, and more stakeholders are coming to the table. This year Widener internally formed an International Taskforce with faculty and administrators across campus to work on projects related to international students and education aboard efforts on campus. Membership is pulled broadly around campus and includes student affairs, enrollment management, admissions, faculty, and graduate programs. The goals of the task force are twofold: to work on projects related to internationalization and to spread the word about international initiatives already happening on campus. Education abroad experiences for students are expanding as U.S. students increasingly expect to have a global or cultural experience as part of their undergraduate education. Widener recently joined the National Student Exchange which offers opportunities for exchange within the U.S. (including Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Virgin Islands) and Canada. For a student who is attending university within 50 miles of their Pennsylvania home, a semester experience at a university in Montana or Arizona can be an extraordinarily different cultural experience, albeit still within the US. The ISS Director, who also serves as the study abroad coordinator, is developing an enhanced offering of semester-long study abroad programs, and the Office of Global Engagement, headed by the Dean of Students, is offering more support for faculty to do faculty-led short-term programs, including to a Widener-owned property in Costa Rica. These efforts are crucial to recruitment and retention efforts.

Students retain at institutions where they feel supported and that they matter, and as tuition prices continue to rise, students are expecting more services in exchange for the price tag. At Widener, the retention of every International student is the goal, and this means ensuring the personal touch, supporting each students, listening to them, improving and modifying services and programs to meet their educational and developmental goals, and building allies across campus to ensure we have a welcoming international climate during this challenging time.

Kandy K. TurnerKandy Turner is Director of International Student Services and Programs and Study Abroad at Widener University in Pennsylvania . Kandy has 12 years of experience in International Education. She serves as PDSO/RO, coordinator of the National Student Exchange, and adviser for international students and scholars as well as study abroad students. Kandy is pursuing her doctoral degree in Higher Education Leadership, and her dissertation focuses on international student identity development.



Denise Gifford for article

Dr. Denise Gifford joined Associate Provost for Global Engagement and Dean of Students for Widener University in Pennsylvania in  2010 upon her return from International Student Affairs work in the Middle East.  Previously she served as the first woman Dean of Students at Zayed University dedicated to the higher education of Emirati women located in Dubai & Abu Dhabi. Her Ed.D is in Political Higher Education Policy & Evaluation, University of Kentucky and is a member of the Edu Alliance Advisory Council.



cropped-edu-alliance-logo-square1.jpgEdu Alliance is a higher education consultancy firm with offices in the United States and the United Arab Emirates. The founders and its advisory members have assisted higher education institutions on a variety of projects, and many have held senior positions in higher education in the United States and internationally.

Our specific mission is to assist universities, colleges and educational institutions to develop capacity and enhance their effectiveness.

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