As Study Abroad Rebounds, Lawmakers Introduce Bill to Expand Access

More than 80% of colleges and universities expect study abroad participation to grow in the 2023-24 academic year.
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Published on July 18, 2023
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  • Study abroad has mostly recovered from its total standstill during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Europe continues to be the most popular destination for study abroad programs.
  • Bipartisan legislation seeks to involve a more diverse community of students in study abroad programs.

Study abroad may not yet be at full strength, but new data suggests these programs have mostly recovered from all-time lows brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

A spring 2023 snapshot survey from the Institute of International Education (IIE) found that 98% of surveyed institutions are offering in-person or hybrid study abroad opportunities during the summer 2023 semester, up from just 31% in 2021.

The vast majority (96%) of U.S. colleges and universities said they anticipate increased or stable study abroad participation for the 2023-24 academic year compared to the prior year.

These figures are signs of the mounting comeback study abroad is having now that the national COVID-19 emergency order is over.

Still, some legislators want to expand these programs to include underrepresented student groups.

U.S. lawmakers re-introduced the bipartisan Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Program Act on Wednesday. The proposal would create a grant program within the Department of State to expand study abroad options to nontraditional destinations and increase the number of minority students, first-generation college students, community college students, and students with disabilities studying abroad.

Study Abroad's Rebound

Getting Back to Pre-Pandemic Levels

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent travel restrictions brought study abroad to a standstill in 2020.

These programs have been slowly making a comeback over the past few years. IIE's report found that for the 2022-23 academic year, 48% of institutions said study abroad participation had rebounded to pre-pandemic levels.

With 82% of institutions now stating they expect study abroad to grow during the 2023-24 year, it's not a stretch to anticipate that most colleges and universities will have recovered in this area by the end of the year.

"The continued anticipated growth in 2023-24 is promising as colleges and universities work to rebuild their study abroad programs," the IIE report stated.

Another 14% of schools anticipate study abroad participation will remain the same from last year.

Moreover, schools are also pivoting back to in-person study abroad. Seventy-nine percent of study abroad programs were in-person only in summer 2023, compared to 58% in 2022 and 15% in 2021.

Changes in Destination

Study abroad may be on the comeback, but programs don't look the same as pre-pandemic.

IIE's report stated that before COVID-19, institutions had begun to diversify which countries to include in their study abroad programs.

"Institutions, sponsors of study abroad scholarships, and providers had made extensive efforts to diversify destinations and provide opportunities for students to have engaging learning experiences in other regions," the report stated.

European destinations continue to be the most popular options. Over 70% of institutions IIE surveyed intended to offer study abroad programs that went to Spain, Italy, the

United Kingdom, France, and Germany.

Half of the top 20 study abroad destinations for the 2023-24 year are in Europe.

However, that's only slightly different than in 2022-23. Last year, 12 of the top 20 destinations were in Europe.

This upcoming year, the following countries are also in the top 20:

  • Japan
  • South Korea
  • Australia
  • Costa Rica
  • New Zealand
  • South Africa
  • Chile
  • Argentina
  • Mexico
  • Ecuador

There is one major country still missing: China.

According to IIE, China was the seventh most popular country for study abroad before the pandemic. Now, less than 30% of institutions plan to send students to China during the 2023-24 academic year.

Lawmakers Look to Expand Study Abroad Access

Legislators hope to use this reset on study abroad to change who gets to learn outside the U.S. and where they go to learn.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat representing Illinois, and U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, a Republican representing Mississippi, introduced the Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Program Act in the Senate. U.S. Reps. Brad Schneider, a Democrat representing Illinois, and Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican representing Pennsylvania, introduced the bill in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The bill has three main goals:

  • Have no fewer than 1 million U.S. undergraduate students study abroad annually within 10 years of the bill becoming law
  • Make the demographics of students studying abroad mirror the overall demographics of students in college
  • Increase the portion of study abroad taking place in "nontraditional" destinations, as defined by the secretary of state

This act would encourage these changes through a competitive grant program. Priority will be given to minority-serving institutions (MSIs), according to the bill's text.

"Study abroad programs are an enriching component of a well-rounded academic and cultural education," Fitzpatrick said in a statement. "Providing our students with the opportunity to visit, study in, and be our ambassadors to nations around the world is essential for American leadership in the 21st century."

Lawmakers have been pushing for this bill for over a decade.

Congress authorized the Commission on the Abraham Lincoln Study Abroad Fellowship Program in 2004, which came back with recommendations to improve study abroad programs. Durbin first introduced this bill, then titled the Abraham Lincoln Study Abroad Act, in 2006.

The proposal has significant backing from interest groups.

According to Durbin, just over 50 organizations endorsed the bill.

"Study abroad experiences are essential to the career-readiness and intercultural competency of U.S. college graduates and by extension, our country's workforce," Fanta Aw, executive director and CEO of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, said in a statement.

"For too long, minority, first-generation, community college students, and students with disabilities have faced barriers to accessing these opportunities. We applaud the bill's champions for their commitment to ensuring that all students at all types of institutions have access to study abroad programs in a wide range of countries."