The White House Travel Bloggers Summit

Early in December the White House hosted a summit with 130 influential travel bloggers and digital media outlets to discuss government initiatives that encourage American students to study abroad.

A number of my friends and colleagues were in attendance, and by all accounts, there is optimism that the White House throwing weight behind the idea of educational student travel will expand opportunities for young people to gain valuable international experience abroad as part of their institutional studies.

We thank the White House for their commitment to expanding international experiences for American students. It’s good to see this issue being prioritized at the highest level in this country. However, these initiatives stop short of their stated goal that “Study Abroad is for Everyone.”

Before we get to “Study Abroad is for Everyone,” let’s look at current statistics reflecting the realities for American young people studying abroad, which are alarming.

  • Only 10% of American students are studying abroad, and of that number 76% are white, while the overall percentage of white students enrolled nationally, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, rests at 61%.
  • Of the 289,000 US students studying abroad, fully 53% of them (153,170) are choosing to study abroad in Europe, which means that their international experience is limited to westernized and largely first world countries.
  • About 36,000 American students are choosing to spend their study abroad time in Asia, and less than half of those young people are spending any time in China, which is poised to be the economic super power of the next generations.
  • By comparison, China sent approximately 236,000 students to study in America in 2013, according to the Open Doors Report

As a passionate traveler, a professional educator, and a parent of university students who have spent about a third of their childhoods traveling, for the express purpose of broadening their educational experience, I support any program or initiative that is likely to get more American students outside of their national borders and immersed in the world.

Clearly, what the White House is attempting in the creation of their new U.S. Study Abroad office is a step in the right direction. Spending a semester or a year abroad is a wonderful addition to any degree program and enriches the educational experience in ways that remaining within the four walls of a classroom in one’s home country cannot ever hope to. Most people would agree with that.

There are, however, some very real considerations that keep the number of American students choosing study abroad programs appallingly low, by international standards, not the least of which is cost. American universities are disproportionately expensive when compared with the costs of other first world institutions providing programs of commensurate quality. Study abroad programs vary widely in cost, but according to an article on Forbes, “Study abroad programs are the stock and trade of most top tier four year colleges and for students who choose to enroll in them, they can become an edge in the job search. At an average cost of $31,270 per semester, these programs run about double what a semester at private colleges run.”

It’s crazy, really.

‘What the White House failed to point out was that, instead of pursuing a study abroad experience through an American institution, students could simply attend university entirely abroad for a fraction of the cost.’

The Washington Post recently published an article citing 7 countries where American students could pursue a university degree for free, or close to it. What the White House failed to point out was that, instead of pursuing a study abroad experience through an American institution, students could simply attend university entirely abroad for a fraction of the cost.

I’ve met many young people doing just that, and I’ve met others who feel cheated by the high price tag they’re paying for their study abroad semester when they realize that there are other American young people enrolled in the same classes that they’re taking, and paying far less, because it occurred to them to think a little further outside the box and simply apply to the international institution directly instead of paying the heavy tax for the American middle man. College is big business in this country, study abroad programs notwithstanding.

While I support the idea of study abroad programs as an introduction to the world for many students who see the benefit to their university experience, their potential marketability upon graduation and general personal development, they are not, in my opinion, the best, or most economical way to gain that all important international experience. In addition to the prohibitive cost of these programs there are other limitations:

  • A “packaged” experience. Often these programs control tightly the experiences young people have, which can be seen as a good or a bad thing, I lean toward the latter, as it’s more difficult to get outside the box if you’ve purchased your travel experience from within the box.
  • A general lack of time for true engagement due to study schedules and institutional requirements. Weekends and school breaks provide limited time for a student to expand their experience in a country beyond the borders of campus or a particular city.
  • The necessity of focusing on academics in order to maintain the appropriate GPA for credit transfer limits the student’s ability to open himself to the myriad of other things that could (and should) be learned from living abroad.
  • The homogenous experience of university life, regardless of the country a student is in, insulates a student from the beautiful rainbow of diversity that cannot be experienced until you’re far from the college experience and get neck deep in the realities of what it’s truly like to live in a place that is not your home. Depending on the student, “cultural immersion” may not extend much further than legal drinking at an earlier age than is allowed in the USA and pub games in a second language.

‘College is big business in this country, study
abroad programs notwithstanding.’

We at BootsnAll have been thinking hard about some of these same issues for the past decade plus. We share the White House’s concern for the extraordinarily low number of young people who are making international travel part of their educational experience. Like the White House, we’ve been working on our own solution. Unlike the White House, we’re not committing your already over stretched tax dollars to the project because we believe the solution is simpler than that.

According to Britt Hysen’s report on the summit on Huffington Post, Robin Goldberg, Chief Experience Officer for Minerva, stressed the need to redefine the meaning of “studying abroad.” She emphasized the importance of spending several semesters in different countries, “One semester should be in Berlin, while another in Mumbai.”

We agree wholeheartedly. If one’s international experience is limited to one other country outside of his home nation, and that country is also a westernized first world country, then it might be better called bi-national experience, and not a particularly diverse representation of the world at large. It’s not that the experience doesn’t have value, it’s just that we can do better for our young people.

‘Unlike the White House, we’re not committing your already over stretched tax dollars to the project because we believe the solution is simpler than that.’

Besides the issue of cost, their definition of “everyone” only included university students, which in 2013 was only 65.9% of graduating high school seniors, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

What about the rest of our young people? Should they not also benefit from continuing their educations abroad, regardless of whether it is done in the formal sense? Currently, what amounts to 6.59% of graduating high school seniors are benefiting from an educational experience abroad by the time they are university graduates.

That number is unacceptably low.

Of course that isn’t taking into account the number of young people who take a gap year between high school and college, or post university. There are no official numbers for Americans who take those gap years, but according to Deseret News, “the Higher Education Research Institute estimated that 1.2 percent of U.S. college freshmen deferred admission to take a gap year in 2011. By that measure, there might be around 35,000 gap year students each year.”

Of course there are those who would argue that the gap year is a “waste of time” because it isn’t contributing directly to the educational plan or organized curriculum of the student deferring college enrollment for that year.

However, a quick look at the data collected by the American Gap Association tells an entirely different story.

Excerpts include:

  • The highest three rated outcomes of Gap Years is that of gaining “a better sense of who I am as a person and what is important to me” followed by “[the Gap Year] gave me a better understanding of other countries, people, cultures, and ways of living” and “[it] provided me with additional skills and knowledge that contributed to my career or academic major.” [Haigler & Nelson, independent study of 280 Gap Year students]
  • 90 percent of students who took a Gap Year returned to college within a year.
  • Gap Year students show a clear pattern of having higher G.P.A.’s than would otherwise have been predicted, and the positive effect lasts over all four years.
  • 88 percent of Gap Year graduates report that their Gap Year had significantly added to their employability.

The evidence overwhelmingly points to the value of an open-ended gap year experience. Most young people taking these extended breaks between enrollment in institutions or before beginning their careers are not necessarily setting out with the goal of continuing education in mind. Nonetheless, they return to pursue university degrees in disproportionate numbers, and their performance is measurably improved for the experience, for a variety of reasons.

‘We believe that travel abroad, for the purpose of personal development and interest-led education should, truly, be available to everyone.’

We at BootsnAll have long been vocal supporters of long-term travel and the value of a gap year. Recognizing that Americans exercise this option at far lower rates than their international peers, we’ve been working on ways to expand the options for young people everywhere, regardless of age, educational experience, background, or economic status. We believe that travel abroad, for the purpose of personal development and interest-led education should, truly, be available to everyone.

To that end, we have created the Travel Access Project (TAP) specifically designed to support and encourage independent, passion driven educational adventures abroad.

Our three part program will support young people in planning and executing journeys that align with their core values and their personal educational objectives. We will help participants develop the skills they need to navigate the world safely and independently, provide support and safety nets while they’re on the road, and custom design curriculum tailor made to individual journeys, resulting in measurable, portfolio driven outcomes that will strengthen future academic or employment resumes. We’ll connect participants with experienced travelers as mentors before, during, and after their journeys, and we’ll connect them on the road with experts in their fields of interest who will help them forward in building passion driven lives and careers.

In addition, we’ll provide tools for parents who are exploring the benefits of a gap year for their young person and equip them with the information they need to best support and encourage the educational journey of a lifetime.

Are you excited yet? Imagine the possibilities for students:

  • Charting their own courses
  • Designing their own educational experiences
  • Engaging in meaningful ways with locals in a wide range of cultures
  • Developing real world skills through navigating challenging experiences on their own
  • Spending face to face time with professionals in their fields of interest
  • Learning and working side by side with individuals and organizations who can teach them things that a classroom can’t possibly contain
  • Gaining a perspective on the gift of their first world passport and the value of the education they’ve pursued
  • Perhaps having the passion for their life’s purpose ignited, and getting a grip on what it means to participate as a world citizen, in the real world

And, unlike pricey, packaged, study abroad programs through institutions, you control the cost, because the journey is hand designed for each individual adventurer.

Sign up here for breaking news about TAP.

It’s coming. Now. For this year’s graduating high school seniors. For you. For your kid.

Photo credit: katalinks, Alex Zhu Photography, Constantine Pankin