Economic reality and money problems may be cooling the enthusiasm of U.S. college students to study abroad, just two years after students' interest in foreign study was at an all-time high.
Four times as many students went abroad in the 2007-2008 academic year as 20 years ago, according to a survey of 985 schools released this week by the Institute of International Education, a nonprofit advocacy group.
But nearly 60 percent of the schools and study-abroad groups surveyed in early September by The Forum on Education Abroad report decreased enrollment from a year ago, since the global economic crisis.
Brown University in Providence, which typically sends one-third of its junior class abroad, saw a 10 percent drop in such enrollment this fall compared with fall 2008, said Kendall Brostuen, director of the Office of International Programs and an associate dean.
"My sense is over the last year, there's probably been some very important dinner-table discussions about how to best go about using the resources that a family has," Brostuen said.
At Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., which typically sends more than 60 percent of its students abroad, study abroad enrollment this fall dropped 25 percent from the same time last year, said spokeswoman Amy Phenix.
Many ask about funding
Enrollment in abroad programs at the University of South Alabama fell dramatically this summer, possibly because students had to use all their financial aid for the regular fall and spring semesters, said Jim Ellis, director of South Alabama's Office of International Education. For the academic year ending in summer 2009, enrollment in abroad programs dropped 50 percent.
"We're seeing an awful lot of students who are very interested in study abroad, but virtually every one of them is asking about funding," he said.
For generations of travel-hungry college students, the semester abroad has become a defining part of undergraduate life, in which students live immersed for months in a new culture and often return fluent in a second language and with an appreciation of life outside the United States.
But the economic decline is causing many students to rethink their plans.
Liz Weaver, 23, a law student at the University of Texas at Austin, is trying to decide whether to enroll in a London program next fall for more than $21,000 for one semester, including tuition, room and board, compared with about $18,000 for similar expenses at Texas for one semester. Then there's airfare and the higher-interest-rate loans she'd have to rely on to pay for the program, which would saddle her with even more debt.
"You have to wonder, is it really worth it?" she asked.
At many schools, students on abroad programs pay their usual college tuition and are responsible for additional costs, such as airfare and living expenses. At other schools, instead of paying to their college, students pay tuition, room and board directly to the program, which could range from $3,000 to as much as $20,000 for a summer or semester.
Bigger drop in public universities
A student at a public school, where in-state tuition is as low as a few thousand dollars a semester, may have to scrape up thousands more to attend a program in an expensive city such as London, for example. A student at an expensive private institution might actually save by going overseas, particularly to an inexpensive country.
The Forum on Education Abroad said 69 percent of its public institutions surveyed had seen drops in abroad enrollment, compared with 49 percent of private institutions.
Mark Lenhart, director of CET Academic Programs, a study abroad program that sends 1,000 students internationally every year, including 500 to China, said his programs often seem like a bargain to students who attend private colleges. He said he's seen just a marginal drop in enrollment, possibly because programs to China tend be more affordable.
David Lerner, a freshman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says the potential debt is what's keeping him from going abroad. If he had gone to a less expensive state school, he might consider it.
"I knew if I came here, it was probably not an option," Lerner said.
John Regnery, 19, a sophomore Japanese major at Texas, has been dreaming of a six-week intensive language program in Japan. He's one-quarter Japanese and has always wanted to go there.
"I have showed my mom the cost and, of course, airfare. She recognizes that it's going to be over $10,000 and it's like, 'Oh my goodness,'" he said. "Is it worth this amount of money? Worth my parents possibly having to draw out loans?"
Not every school has seen recent drops in abroad enrollments, however, and some administrators believe their dips are temporary. At Brown and Macalester, for example, officials say interest is strong for spring programs; Brostuen said that may indicate people feel the economy may be turning the corner.