How to Make Study-Abroad Programs Better

Administered properly, overseas-study programs can be a boon for UNC-System schools.

Studying abroad presents students with opportunities to earn course credit, gain exposure to different languages and cultures, and engage with students and faculty of different backgrounds. Improving the University of North Carolina System’s study-abroad opportunities could well attract new students to UNC and increase engagement among currently enrolled students. Moreover, prioritizing cost-effectiveness, academic quality, and breadth of opportunities could enable the UNC System to become a leader in international educational programs.

A recent U.S. Department of State report cites “academic vibrancy … creativity and innovation in the sciences and the arts” as crucial benefits of studying abroad. The report further emphasizes the importance of strong cross-cultural understanding and the development of leadership skills for engaging in our modern, interconnected economy. Considering that North Carolina in particular boasts an increasingly global and intellectually demanding economic landscape, engaging the UNC System’s students in academically rigorous and leadership-building international programs is a prudent investment.

Engaging students in academically rigorous and leadership-building international programs is a prudent investment.Making a similar point was a 2016 Saint Peter’s University paper, which pointed to the tangible benefits of increased participation in study-abroad. The paper cited data from national student-engagement surveys indicating that “study-abroad participants have a significant, impactful tendency to [engage in multiple co-curricular activities] during and after their study-abroad experience.” Not only did the data indicate that study-abroad participants became more socially and academically engaged in their universities after returning home, but also that retention and graduation rates increased.

Study-abroad participation exhibited steady growth nationally between the 1990s and 2019, at which point international travel came to a grinding halt as a result of the Covid pandemic. Since then, almost all UNC-System schools have reopened their study-abroad programs. However, UNC Pembroke, NC Central University, and Winston-Salem State University indicate that they are not currently accepting applications for study-abroad. It is unclear why these schools have yet to resume their programs, nor when these opportunities will become available once more.

Considering that most Covid-related travel restrictions have been lifted and that the majority of UNC-System schools have resumed their study-abroad programs, students, faculty, and stakeholders ought to seek answers from the institutions that have failed to provide study-abroad opportunities since the pandemic. While frustrating, this kind of institutional delay makes a compelling case for the expansion of study-abroad programs to a cross-institutional applicant pool.

Survey results reported by Higher Ed Dive suggest that a significant majority of students are interested in studying abroad, and that 57 percent “choose their colleges with study-abroad opportunities in mind.” With international experiences so high on the priority list of incoming students, UNC-System schools might seek to stave off enrollment declines by offering robust study-abroad programs. Offering enriching international education opportunities to prop up enrollment surely bodes better for UNC schools than lowering admissions standards. On the flipside, failing to reopen study-abroad programs incentivizes many students to enroll elsewhere.

By leveraging the international connections and unique programs of the larger UNC-System schools (such as UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State University), the UNC System could become a national leader in study-abroad programming. The key is to establish a system-wide application process. At present, each institution’s study-abroad program includes unique partner programs and institutions. NC State University, for example, features a wide variety of STEM opportunities. Providing qualified students across the system with access to programs currently offered only at the larger schools will attract students to the UNC-System and provide North Carolina’s undergraduates with experiences helpful to their participation in the global economy.

The UNC System could become a national leader in study-abroad programming.Some programs, such as UNC-Chapel Hill’s Honors Semester in London, are open to both Chapel Hill applicants and to honors students at all system schools. This is an excellent model for other institutions to follow. It is in the interest of the State of North Carolina to maximize the economic and learning outcomes of students throughout the university system, and placing qualified students from across the institutions in high-level international programs is an effective way to do so.

To ensure their progress toward a degree, students must find study-abroad opportunities that offer transferable course credits. UNC-System study-abroad opportunities appear to more consistently offer transferable credit for introductory-level courses than for courses in particular degree programs. As such, studying abroad earlier in one’s educational career may be prudent. Study-abroad opportunities are often tailored toward fulfilling general education requirements, so students should investigate programs that interest them early in their college career (better yet, prior to enrollment) and plan to use their time abroad to fulfill these requirements.

UNC-Chapel Hill’s Carolina Global Launch program provides a great blueprint for a study-abroad program focused on academic rigor in a culturally enriching setting. Admitted students spend their first semester as a Tar Heel at an international university abroad, earning credits toward their degrees and returning to their home campus in the spring. This maximizes students’ opportunities to fulfill general education requirements and develop skills that will increase their engagement in the campus community at the very beginning of their academic careers.

While the aforementioned studies and reports indicate numerous positive benefits of studying abroad, not all programs are created equal. Study-abroad programs must be held to the same standards as our academic institutions in North Carolina: intellectual diversity in pedagogy, instillment of fundamental knowledge, academic rigor, and cost effectiveness. Accordingly, study-abroad programs should not be taxpayer-subsidized vacation experiences. Students must make progress toward their degrees and be held to the same standards of assessment abroad as at home. Thus, partner institutions and programs should be selected based on course rigor and the availability of demonstrably enriching experiences. Superfluous activities should not be included in program budgets but, rather, should be paid for by participants.

However, considering that 84 percent of students express concern regarding the cost of studying abroad, university-facilitated international internship programs should be expanded. International internships provide all of the cross-cultural experiences provided by traditional study-abroad programs, in addition to offsetting program costs and imparting students with practical work-experience prior to graduation. For students concerned about excessive debt and post-graduation employment opportunities, international internships provide an opportunity to stand out in the job-application process while keeping expenses low.

Institutions should trim down overly burdensome administrative operations.UNC-Chapel Hill, for example, dedicates a page on its study-abroad program website to “low cost” summer study-abroad programs. Only programs costing less than $8,000 are listed, and programs are sorted by transferable credit hours. However, these programs still include somewhat ambiguous fees, including a $925-$1,200 “admin fee.” While another webpage states that this fee is used for processing documents, managing databases, and managing accounts, a price above $900 for such services is rather excessive. Institutions should trim down overly burdensome administrative operations and other extraneous costs involved with study-abroad programs.

Well-executed study-abroad programs are crucial to the future success of our state colleges and universities. All constituent UNC-System schools should resume full operation of their respective programs and facilitate greater cross-institutional student participation. By expanding opportunities, cutting costs, and ensuring student progress toward both degrees and careers in all study-abroad programs, the UNC System can strengthen its graduate pool, bolster enrollment, and positively impact student engagement on campus and in the economy at large.

The following links direct the reader to the study-abroad pages of each UNC-System school.

Appalachian State University

East Carolina University

Fayetteville State University

NC A&T University

NC Central University

NC State University

UNC Asheville

UNC-Chapel Hill

UNC Charlotte

UNC Greensboro

UNC Pembroke

UNC School of the Arts

UNC Wilmington

Winston-Salem State University

Western Carolina University

Harrington Shaw is an intern at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal and a junior studying economics and philosophy at UNC-Chapel Hill.