To study abroad or not to study abroad?

To study abroad or not to study abroad? That is the tough question. A recent report by the British Council – “Broadening Horizons: Breaking through the barriers to overseas study” – looks at UK and US students’ perceptions of study abroad. It also compares the perspectives of both countries and reveals some of the differences between American and British students.

A notable difference between both countries is the greater proportion of US students (56%) than UK students (20%) that considered studying abroad. Although both UK and US students share similar reasons for considering studying abroad, the main reason reported by US students was to ‘have fun travelling and exploring other cultures’ whereas the reasons for UK students were predominantly aligned with career aspirations. There is also a higher proportion of US students that indicated the undergraduate level when considering studies abroad compared to UK students that were considering studying overseas at the postgraduate level. It would seem that while American students have a preference for short-term exchanges (one or two semesters), British students seem more interested in acquiring a diploma overseas. This reflects the aforementioned reasons indicated by both countries. US students view study abroad as a short-term travel and cultural experience while UK students see it as part of a long-term aspiration to live and work abroad.

So why do a greater proportion of American students consider studying overseas? Why do US students consider study abroad primarily as a short-term, undergraduate experience? Although the reasons are complex, one possible interpretation is that if we consider the different geographical contexts of each country, US students – compared to UK students – have fewer international destinations within proximity (the nearest are Mexico and Canada). As such, US students can incur higher costs and greater distance to travel beyond their borders. On the other hand, British students have more geographical proximity to different countries and thus the advantage and convenience of being able to travel for leisure – even for just a weekend – to a different country at a relatively lower cost. In this perspective, financial, geographical and time constraints may play into the preference of American students for short-term study abroad sojourns. US students may view study abroad programs as an opportunity to combine their desire to travel with their program of study. They can travel abroad while gaining credits and maintaining full-time status in their program of study (kind of like hitting two birds with one stone, so to speak).

As for concerns with studying abroad, these were consistent between both countries. Both UK and US students reported ‘prohibitive costs’ as the primary concern, followed mainly by language barriers and ‘leaving family’. However, a higher proportion of US students than UK students reported a lack of confidence in their second language skills. Yet, US students’ ranked France and Spain – two romance-speaking countries – in their top 3 destinations for study abroad (the UK was first). UK students’ top 3 destinations were all English-speaking countries (US, Australia and Canada respectively). Although Canada was the third destination preference for UK students, it did not figure among US students’ top 10 destinations for study abroad despite being more affordable and proximate than European destinations. I would seem that US students’ are primarily interested in distancing themselves – both geographically and culturally – from their home country.

As for non-academic drivers, US students indicated ‘becoming more self-sufficient’ as the third driver for studying abroad (this was sixth for UK students). This is relevant to my research project as my empirical data suggests that one of the main motivations for Canadian students to study abroad is to gain more independence and personal growth.

It would be interesting to see how Canada compares to the UK and US perspectives. Do Canadian students’ perceptions reflect more the UK or the US? What are their main motivations? How much interest do Canadians have in study abroad? What are their top destinations? Here’s hoping a Canadian report is in the works!