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  • Writer's pictureAdam Rubin

Pondering the Post-Pandemic Study Abroad Landscape

As someone who has devoted the past 25+ years of my life to international education, I’ve witnessed the impact of global health crises, wars and terrorist attacks, natural disasters, and economic recessions on study abroad, educational travel, and student exchange.

With each subsequent challenge and incident, our field has adapted, adjusted, and rebounded. International education programs are designed to provide students with the opportunity to gain new academic, personal, and professional skills, and I, like many of my colleagues and friends, often claim that my personal study abroad experience helped make me a more resilient and confident individual.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting global economic recession have tested our field in unprecedented ways, and we are far from steering our ship safely back to harbor. With borders closed, visa processing backlogged, and the vast majority of study abroad for fall 2020 cancelled, U.S. study abroad has been decimated this fall and remains highly fragile for spring 2021. 

A recent IIE Snapshot series included an analysis of the pandemic’s impact on both international students coming to the U.S. and U.S. students studying abroad. While IIE survey data indicates that the majority of U.S. institutions continue to plan for study abroad in spring 2021, nearly 80% of respondents anticipate a sharp decrease in their study abroad enrollments for the 2020-21 academic year.

Many study abroad professionals report that the needs of their offices have been put on the side burner as their institutions choose to focus on larger overall financial issues and plans for the fall 2020 semester. In a recent Business Insider article widely circulated, NYU Professor Scott Galloway suggests that the current pandemic could result in hundreds of U.S. colleges and universities going out of business completely.

The Impact on Student Mobility and International Education is Global

International education involves careful and creative collaboration between various stakeholders around the world, including schools, faculty, administrators, students, families, and community organizations. Prior to 2020, when an issue or incident impacted one country or region, we were all able to pivot and adjust in order to maintain a wide range of program options for our students. Today, however, we are faced with the reality that all countries and all regions of the world are struggling to overcome the pandemic. 

A recent NAFSA publication regarding the impact of COVID-19 on international education estimates that a 25% decline in international student enrollments here in the U.S. would result in a loss of $10 billion and more than 100,000 jobs. It also mentioned that numerous study abroad organizations have already reduced their global staff levels by more than 50%. Recent indicators suggest that the losses and layoffs are likely to increase due to the continuation of the pandemic around the world. When looked at through a global lens, the economic impact on countries that host and send significant numbers of students abroad is truly staggering.

With global mobility at a standstill and schools struggling to navigate the challenges of on-line and hybrid programs and myriad concerns about the health and well-being of our students, teachers, and staff, this new global “normal” has resulted in financial and administrative chaos for schools and panic, fear, and frustration for many people. Thousands of international education jobs have been lost, thousands of programs cancelled and suspended, and multiple institutional and organizational doors shuttered around the world, as students are unable or unwilling to study abroad, enroll in full-time degree programs, or participate in short-term educational training or travel programs.

However, much like the students who we support on international programs, I believe that the current situation is forcing us to be more resilient, develop new strategies for adjusting to unfamiliar territory, and, in many ways, learn a new language that will allow us to successfully adapt, survive, and eventually succeed. Our global community has shown its resilience through the creation of new virtual learning opportunities, development of creative and adaptive academic calendars, and the embrace of new technologies and training.

Virtual Learning is Here to Stay

Virtual courses and internships, once previously guaranteed to generate eye rolls and frowns from international educators, are now gaining in support and appreciation due to their ability to provide increased global access to students who might not be able to do a more traditional study abroad program or internship due to the current pandemic and other barriers associated with cost or academic restrictions.

Further, these new program models are providing students with the opportunity to learn from professors around the world, develop professional skills through global internship projects, and, at least some level, learn about new cultures and communities.

While most of us will always prefer the traditional in-country options, these virtual programs will remain valuable long after COVID-19 has ended. Many colleges and universities are still contemplating how these virtual courses and internships will fit into their academic systems, but more institutions are starting to recognize the academic validity of these experiences and opportunities.

For some institutions, these external virtual opportunities will be a welcome addition to their programs. For others, however, they will be seen as unwanted or unacceptable threats to their own academic programs and revenue streams.

Student Demand for Study Abroad vs. Pandemic Realities

Student demand for international exchange and travel will likely continue to be strong going forward, and many feel that the current restrictions and home confinement reality will make students even more eager than usual to study abroad in the future.

However, demand aside, there are other barriers that will need to be addressed before international education can start to make a true recovery. First and foremost, the virus itself must be contained through the development of effective and safe vaccinations. Next, borders will need to open and remain open, and transportation networks will have to be rebuilt and restarted.

Schools around the world will need to stabilize their academic programs and calendars, rebuild lost revenue through enhanced admissions efforts and proactive financial aid initiatives, and restructure teams that lost valuable staff positions due to the pandemic. 

While student demand for study abroad will eventually rebound, many of us believe that study abroad enrollments will take at least 2-3 semesters post-pandemic in order to truly return to more normal levels. This is due to several factors.

First, many students are unable to return to their home campuses in fall 2020 or are returning to a strange hybrid reality that will significantly reduce their much-desired freedom, engagement in activities, clubs, and sports, and ability to fully enjoy the college lifestyle. For these students, the opportunity to return to their home campus in spring or fall 2021 will likely take priority over study abroad opportunities

Second, study abroad is often seen as an “add-on” that must be carefully woven into a four-year degree. With many students taking a leave-of-absence or opting to take a reduced course load this year, it could become challenging for some of them to fit a semester of study abroad into their program as they return to school in 2021 and attempt to complete their graduation requirements on time.

Third, the economic loss suffered by many families during this pandemic will further amplify the potential for study abroad to be considered as a nice but unfeasible option.

Finally, many students may decide that they have “missed their window of opportunity” to study abroad, particularly those who are currently in their third year of university. 

Building a Potential Path Forward

A quick review of the situation might leave those in our field feeling even less confident about a recovery in 2021. There are many factors that lie outside of our control, particularly those related to the virus and its related health concerns and government policies and plans around the world. Students and their families are struggling to figure out a new road map to help them afford and complete their educational plans, and colleges and universities around the world are reeling from deep financial losses. 

However, as many in our field have pointed out in recent weeks, the current pandemic will make our work in international education increasingly important in the years ahead.

Much as we have done for the past century, international educators will need to re-double their efforts to promote exchange, to rebuild bridges damaged by this storm, and to help students develop the skills and resources they need to become competent and confident members of our global community.

It’s not going to be easy, and the recovery will likely take longer than hoped, but there are various approaches that schools and organizations can take now to help lay the groundwork for the future:

Embrace virtual global learning opportunities

The efforts of faculty, students, administrators, and community partners over the past six months has shown us that virtual courses, internships, and research can be effective on many levels. Learning how to work remotely with people around the world is an important skill. Study abroad, global internships, and research need to be done with greater intentionality when delivered online, but these are valid and valuable opportunities for academic and professional skill development.

They can also be highly cost effective and provide access to students who may not be able to participate in more traditional in-country programs. While it will be extremely important to vet the academic quality and overall rigor and support services for these programs and internships, virtual learning can enhance the academic credit-worthy experiences offered by higher education institutions.

Expand short-term international programming

Short-term study abroad enrollments continue to out-pace semester or academic year international programs. This trend is likely to continue going forward, as students attempt to pack more experiences and opportunities into their four-year undergraduate degrees. Due to the added financial and academic constraints and barriers created by the current pandemic, institutions and organizations should give extra support to short-term international academic programs.

These can be custom programs led by home institution faculty in collaboration with a third-party provider or overseas institutional partner or short-term programs offered by program providers or international partners. The end result is that more students will still have the opportunity to include a global experience in their undergraduate studies. This is good for the students, good for their institutions, and good for all organizations and institutions involved in international education.

Increase scholarships and reduce/maintain costs to help expand access to international programs

The economic challenges associated with COVID-19 are significant and will have a major impact on students for many years. Students and their families are struggling to afford the high cost of higher education in the U.S., and many of them will be increasingly unable to pay for an international program.

By keeping the price of programs and other international experiences as low as possible and increasing funding to support students with deep financial need, more students will be able to study abroad. This is not a new strategy, and our field has made considerable progress in this area over the past few years. However, it will be an even more important part of the post-pandemic recovery strategy for our students and our field.

Create new and more creative partnerships

The past six months has resulted in chaos and loss for many institutions and organizations. Smaller study abroad organizations have closed their doors, larger organizations have furloughed or released a large percentage of their staff and have suspended most of their programs indefinitely, and many college and university study abroad offices have reduced staffing levels and remain unsure about how and when they will be able to send their students abroad in the future.

Over the next 6-12 months, it will be valuable for institutions and organizations to re-think their partnerships and their study abroad portfolios.

  • Where might there be new synergies or opportunities for collaboration that will provide sustainable or more creative solutions to the problems that we currently face?

  • How can partners work more closely together to address academic and financial barriers?

  • Are there “legacy” partners or programs that no longer meet the needs of the institution and its students?

  • Are there partners outside of higher education that could offer interesting public-private opportunities? How can private companies partner with schools to provide valuable study abroad experiences and professional development for students while also providing tangible benefits to companies in various sectors?

Develop program models that reflect the needs and interests of Gen Z

Higher education has been evolving in new directions over the past 10 years, and there is increasing debate around the intersection and relative value of “traditional academic learning” and “employability” on university campuses. As Gen Z students try to make sense of the world around them and do their best to adapt to the realities of the current pandemic, they will be increasingly focused on outcomes that meet their academic interests while also preparing them to survive and succeed in the “real world” once they graduate.

Students today seek multiple formal and informal experiences during their undergraduate studies, including both for-credit and not-for-credit courses, internships, projects, research, and other skill-building opportunities. International education can provide multiple pieces to the puzzle for today’s students. There is demonstrated need for more research and internship opportunities, collaboration with peers and mentors on projects, and programs and courses that reflect new academic disciplines, new career paths, and new core skills required to expand one’s employability going forward. In many cases, these new opportunities can be built into existing programs and study abroad frameworks, but there will be a greater need for institutions and organizations to think differently about the needs and interests of our students.

Balance short-term financial emergencies with long-term recovery challenges

Many study abroad organizations, colleges, and universities worldwide are facing significant financial loss and interruption of important revenue streams. While these financial realities are forcing many organizations and institutions to furlough or eliminate staff positions, it’s important for leaders to consider the need for retaining the most experienced and knowledgeable staff. They have the expertise and experience managing teams and navigating difficult situations that will be vital in helping to lead the post-pandemic recovery efforts. While cutting larger salaries now may help in the short-term, doing so could create more significant long-term damage going forward.

The road ahead will have numerous and often unpredictable twists and turns, and our industry’s GPS may not know exactly how to guide us safely and smoothly forward to our destination. However, despite the challenges that we face and the losses that we’ve all had to endure, I remain both hopeful and optimistic about the future of study abroad. We design programs to help make our students more resilient and adaptable. Now it’s time for us to find our own inner resilience and adapt in new ways in order to survive, succeed, and pave the way for a bright post-pandemic international education landscape.

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About the Author

Adam Rubin, founder and principal of AWR International, has worked in the field of international education for over 25 years, including more than 20 years with the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE). His background includes senior and executive roles in program management, development, and evaluation, on-site program leadership, strategic planning, institutional relations, risk management, and enrollment management. He also served as Director of Institutional Relations and Enrollment Management for The College of Global Studies at Arcadia University and the Associate Vice President of International Programs for Road Scholar, the leading provider of educational travel programs for members of the lifelong learning community.

Adam has served on various committees for both NAFSA and the Forum on Education Abroad and is a former Board of Directors member for the World Affairs Council of Maine. He has presented nationally and internationally on a variety of issues and topics, including program development, study abroad risk management, international internships and service-learning, Gen Z students and study abroad, and managing programs in non-traditional locations. Adam received his MA in East Asian Studies from Stanford University and BA in Economics from Whitman College.

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