Record Number of U.S. Students Study Abroad, in Diverse Locations [USA Today]

More U.S. students are studying abroad than ever before, and they’re choosing an increasingly diverse array of destinations, a new report says.

A record 241,791 U.S. students went abroad for academic credit in 2006-07, up 8% from the previous year, and nearly 150% more than a decade earlier, the report says. It was released today by the Institute of International Education, a non-profit New York-based group that tracks international enrollment trends with U.S. State Department funding.

“U.S. students recognize that our world is increasingly interdependent,” says Goli Ameri, assistant secretary of State for educational and cultural affairs. “There is tremendous interest on the part of other countries for Americans to study there.”

Among report highlights:

•Europe continues to host the largest share of students, 57%, but that’s down from the year earlier. Some of the fastest growth is occurring in Asia and Africa, where the number of students increased by 20% and 19%, respectively. By country, some of the biggest increases occurred in students going to South Africa, up 28%; China, up 25.3%; Argentina, up 26.2%; Ecuador, up 29.6%; and India, up 24.2%.

•The top three major fields of study are the social sciences (21.4%) , business and management (19.1%) , and humanities (13.2%). Students studying foreign languages represented 7.2% of the total; that was the only field to see a drop in the number of students going abroad.

•A trend toward shorter durations continues. More than 55% of students study abroad for periods of eight weeks or less, up from 53% the previous year. The number of students spending an academic year abroad has dropped from 5.5% to 4.4%.

Helping fuel the trend is an increase in programs and opportunities, the report says. More colleges and universities are creating partnerships with institutions abroad. Goucher College, near Baltimore, now requires all incoming students to study abroad. This summer, the former chair and vice chair of the 9/11 Commission urged Congress to approve a bill that aims to increase to 1 million the number of students studying abroad in a decade.

The United States “cannot conduct itself effectively in a competitive international environment when our most educated citizens lack minimal exposure to, and understanding of, the world beyond U.S. borders,” they argued in an op-ed in The Christian Science Monitor.

Even 1 million students would be a tiny share of all U.S. students; last year, more than 17 million students were enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities.

Institute president Allan Goodman suggests 1 million may be overly optimistic. If trends continue, he says, about half that number would be more realistic.

Even then, he says, challenges await. U.S. students are increasingly choosing to study in less-developed countries, for example, but those countries are already short of space. And countries that would welcome more U.S. students aren’t prepared to accommodate a growing preference among U.S. students for shorter programs.

“Where will another 500,000 U.S. students go? There is not an inexhaustible supply in other countries,” Goodman says. “There is a mismatch in terms of programs and capacity.”