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  • Adam Rubin

We're Gonna Need a Bigger Boat!

This post is based on an article that I wrote for The Forum on Education Abroad for The Forum Focus (published May 2018). Link: https://issuu.com/forumoneducationabroad/docs/forum_focus_-_may_2018_final

Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures and Google Images

In the 1975 thriller Jaws, the police chief sees the monstrous great white shark and emphatically declares to the captain that they are "gonna need a bigger boat."

Over the past three decades, my colleagues and I in international education have collaborated on new initiatives, programs, and dialogue designed to help increase the overall number of U.S. students who study abroad. Enrollments have steadily grown as universities and international education organizations have developed innovative new program models, expanded the definition of "study abroad" to include international research projects, internships, and service-learning, and supported the growth of customized and faculty-led programs designed to meet the specific academic goals and student needs at individual institutions. In addition, there has been an increased effort to expand student access through the reduction of common study abroad barriers involving cost, curriculum, and culture. Many new non-profit and for-profit organizations have joined the field in recent years. In our hyper-personalized "Venti-half-caff-extra shot-extra hot-almond-milk-caramel mochaccino" world, the range of international program options available today is amazingly wonderful for students and increasingly challenging for schools and study abroad organizations.

As someone who has been centrally-involved in new program development, management, and evaluation for most of my career, I’ve been both the cautious voice of "maintaining traditional study abroad" and the excited cheerleader for "expanding study abroad access" through new program models and options. Given the changing nature of higher education and needs and interests of Gen Z students, it stands to reason that we should embrace new approaches and create more flexible, customizable programs. At the same time, most of us also recognize the benefits that more traditional programs (longer duration, direct matriculation into host universities, more intensive language studies, etc.) still provide to many institutions and their students. There is no longer one model or approach to a successful international experience, so we must balance both the traditional and the new in order to provide increased access and support to the students of today and tomorrow.

Much like the captain and his crew in Jaws, we now face the problems associated with an insufficient boat. Most institutions and organizations have faced increasing human and physical infrastructure challenges in recent years, as we try to manage the large, hungry shark (or actually a huge school of different sharks) with limited resources and competing priorities and challenges. For institutions, the leaders have had to consider effective strategies for increasing the range of program options for their students through study abroad program providers, expanded faculty-led programs, or a combination of the two. Study abroad organizations have either remained true to their core mission and faced the economic challenges involved with being considered "too niche" or "too limited" or have expanded rapidly and diversified into a broad range of semester, short-term, Gap Year, High School, internship, and customized programs.

For the latter group, the Jaws analogy has become particularly relevant, as organizations struggle to support the demand for customized programs while continuing to run their well-established successful "traditional" programs, often with the same core staff and limited physical infrastructure. The pressure on study abroad centers to deliver multiple high school and college programs becomes even more difficult during peak custom-program periods (i.e. late spring/early summer), as staff try to manage semester college programs, high school programs, and short-term faculty-led programs concurrently.

As some study abroad providers have attempted to provide maximum flexibility and offer something for everyone, many colleges with a more traditional approach to international education have started to move away from long-term relationships with these organizations due to concerns about inconsistent or declining academic quality and student support. A boat designed to safely accommodate twenty passengers doesn't float as well when it attempts to take on fifty people. Similarly, a team trained to support one primary type of program (i.e. semester study abroad) can become overwhelmed and may need additional support to effectively manage new programs (i.e. high school or faculty-led). Building new relationships is important to the success of any organization, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of established and trusted partners.

In order to adapt and expand, organizations try to build bigger boats or, in some cases, diversify their brand by acquiring additional boats. The competition for faculty, staff, housing, and classrooms at study abroad centers around the world has become intense in recent years. In addition, mergers and acquisitions have now become commonplace in international education. For some, this strategy seems to be working well, while, for others, consolidation has created confusion for schools and students, dilution of their brand and mission, and, in some cases, the potential for inconsistent delivery of program quality and support. Many colleges have decided to build or rent their own boats (custom faculty-led programs) but have often found that they can't successfully and consistently manage their programs as they try to navigate choppy seas with an inexperienced faculty captain. Further, due to the aforementioned infrastructure challenges facing program providers, they may discover that there aren't enough slips for their institution's ship in the marina due to the tendency for most custom programs to occur at the same peak times throughout the academic year. Competition for high quality resources has become fierce in many top study abroad destinations, including both popular world cities (i.e. London, Paris, or Tokyo) and niche program locations requiring specific facilities (i.e. STEM programs in Costa Rica).

While all of us celebrate the increased number of students studying abroad through diverse program, growth for growth's sake is a dangerous proposition. We need to consider balancing the benefits and competing priorities of our rapidly expanding international exchange landscape:

Do you need a bigger boat?

Physical and human infrastructure challenges and organizational capacity must be carefully addressed in advance in order to maintain consistently high quality and safe program options for students.

Do we need more boats?

While offering innovative new program models is exciting and important, institutions and organizations must address concerns about the intersection of various programs at one location from academic quality, student support, risk management, and budget perspectives. Schools and organizations should develop a clear set of objectives and a system for evaluating desired academic, intercultural development, community engagement, financial, and overall strategic program outcomes. We need to have the right boats and the right crew to achieve success in this increasingly crowded and complex ocean.

Do you know and trust the captain?

International education has long been built on relationships. As study abroad organizations look to diversify and expand their programs, it is important for them to consider how their actions may impact their core U.S. institutional members and their host country university and community partners. Growth should be managed carefully and strategically to reflect the needs of both established and new partners.

Much like the captain, police chief, and other characters in Jaws, we need to think collaboratively and creatively about approaches for safely and successfully catching the gigantic hungry shark circling our boat. This is an exciting time for all of us in International Education, but we must expand in a responsible manner in order to provide our students with the best study abroad experiences and make sure that it’s safe and enjoyable for everyone to go back into the water.

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