Why the White House Wants You To Study Abroad

Last week the White House invited 100 travel bloggers and digital media professionals to a summit promoting study abroad. The National Security Council hosted the event, known officially as The White House Travel Blogger Summit on Study Abroad and Global Citizenship. Why did the POTUS open his home and office to a bunch of free-spirited social media strategists filled with wanderlust? Good question, one I’ve been asked repeatedly over the past few weeks.

The U.S. State Department had a surprise to share - the launch of a U.S. Study Abroad Office accompanied by an online study abroad fare in February 2015. The government, it turns out, wants more U.S. college students and high school students to travel to foreign lands to strengthen both their language skills and knowledge of other cultures, valuable assets in today’s competitive global marketplace.

A who’s who of senior administration officials and other global-minded VIPs took to the podium including White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, commerce secretary Penny Pritzker, FLOTUS chief of staff Tina Tchen, Peace Corps director Carrie Hessler-Radelet and George Mason University president, Angel Cabrera.

Yes, most it not all travelled abroad (not sure if Tina Tchen did). And it changed their lives. Transformed their lives.

Most students want to go abroad. Over half of college students expressed interest in studying abroad in a 2008 survey by the American Council on Education. Evan Ryan, a State Department official speaking at the summit, reported less than 10% study abroad at some point in their educational experience. During the 2012 – 2013 school year, almost 300,000 students completed coursework abroad, a mere 1.5% of those enrolled in U.S. higher education – and over half of those choose Europe, more than a third just three countries (Spain, Italy, UK). The State Department would like to see more students traveling to more exotic locations.
U.S. Census Bureau via U.S. State Department

Plus, the U.S. government wants students, parents and educators to know study abroad isn’t just for white, affluent art history or language majors with Impressionism posters on their dorm room wall and no solid career paths, basically the semester abroad stereotype (at least mine). The government would like this exclusive group to become more inclusive, representing more diversity in terms of ethnicity, income and college major (STEM in particular).

So let’s be honest, a large if not primary reason the stereotype persists both in theory and in practice comes down to the high price tag of taking a semester in Barcelona or Israel. Officials at the WH briefing acknowledge this reality and mentioned several government funding sources including the Gilman International Scholarship Program for college students who receive Pell Grants, surely a competitive and limited scholarship opportunity.

Angela Cabrera, President of George Mason University acknowledged the steep cost also but argued “the price of not studying abroad is significant,” a theme echoed by many others last Tuesday. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzer, no surprise, emphasized the economic value of living and studying in foreign cultures:

In this day and age, more and more employers want to hire people with a true “world view” – with the adaptability and openness that comes with having experienced other cultures. In fact, a MetLife survey found that 65 percent of Fortune 1000 executives identified global awareness as “very important” or “essential” in order to be ready for a career.

Do I wish more students could afford to study abroad or otherwise more easily go abroad? Absolutely.

As someone who has spent two decades studying and working in universities, I am well aware of the realities of higher education including 
the financial costs of education as well as the challenges of simply finishing a degree, ones not merely related to money. When 40% of full-time students in 4-year degree programs do not graduate or do so in longer than 6 years according to the Department of Education, it’s not realistic to expect a large portion to take their course work on the road. The portrait becomes even more dismal for students in 2-year programs.

Complicating the situation further, program requirements do not always mesh easily with programs abroad. If the government wants more STEM students studying abroad, for instance, then it should work with universities to make it more feasible and attractive for students with strict class requirements. I applaud schools that require course work with a global focus, an international component should be part of any major.

If you want to keep current on the White House conversation on study abroad follow #StudyAbroadBecause on Twitter.

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