Study Abroad Trends & Stats Pre-Pandemic (and thoughts on the future)

industry insights study abroad

Editor's Note: Spanish Studies Abroad has curated a resource of facts, statistics, and trends in study abroad prior to the pandemic. When they told me about the resource they created, I asked them to pull together some of the most important and compelling insights from their project...and here's what they said.

Seasoned international educators likely won't be shocked by any of these findings - these are common challenges and trends we've known for awhile. However, for those new to international education or exploring it as a career, will find a lot of valuable insights into the state of global education in the US. 


Inside Study Abroad’s readers may be interested in an article that Spanish Studies Abroad recently published regarding the facts and figures of US study abroad students

The article draws from (and comments on) several data sources, in particular on IIE’s Open Doors publication, from which we were able to extract a good overview of where American students tend to travel for overseas educational experiences. 

The study includes data leading up to 2020 - until the COVID-19 pandemic - and we focused in particular on the most recent 5 years in study abroad. 

The pandemic practically sent the entire study abroad world on hold, so new data sets will not tell us much until travel is again normalized, at which point there will be an opportunity to analyze its impact on global study abroad trends.

The following are some of the most interest conclusions that we reached:


The top 10 destinations stay mostly the same for the most recent 5 years

In the 5-year period dating from the 2014/15 school year to 2018/19, the Top 5 list of destination countries for US students remained unchanged year on year - The United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, France, and Germany. There were slight variances in the next 5 in given years in terms of their order but the collective totals of US visitors for the next 5 ended in this order: Ireland, China, Australia, Japan and Costa Rica.


The Top 3 destinations are really the “Big 3”

The popularity of The United Kingdom, France and Spain as destinations for US students is clear in both 5-year and 10-year overviews. These three countries represent the destinations of over 10% of US students’ study programs. It is not difficult to understand why -- the U.K. has linguistic and cultural factors; Italy’s culture and history still fascinate (and possibly family ties for descendants of Italian immigrants) and the importance of the Spanish language is an important attraction to study in Spain.


Europe, yes, but the Americas, no

There is a growing diversity in the overall list of destinations for US students but Europe (counting the UK as part of Europe) clearly is at the top of US students’ minds when choosing a study abroad destination. It is surprising that Costa Rica is the only destination in the Americas in the Top 10. The data indicate that Mexico used to be a top destination but coverage of safety concerns there seems to have dampened demand.


Increase in numbers for Spain

From academic year 2014/15 through 2018/19, Spain saw an increase annually, that took its number of US students from around 28,000 to nearly 34,000. In Spanish Studies Abroad, we theorize that there are two key factors for this increase. The growth of low-cost airlines in Europe meant that students could more easily move around Europe and use their weekends to visit “bucket list” destinations around the continent and in the U.K. In addition, there was a growth in English-language medium programs in Barcelona, where the Catalonian language predominates over Castilian Spanish.


Before the coronavirus pandemic, steady growth in US study abroad numbers

The decade of school years that ended in 2018 /19 experienced tremendous growth in study abroad numbers for US students. Overall, the figures grew from around 650,000 to over 900,000 US students participating. This meant that over 10% of U university students were doing an education abroad experience during their studies. Given the challenges with staying on track for graduation and the high cost of education in the United States, a participation rate of 10% can be viewed as a success. 


Female students travel more

While the percentages have improved by a few points for men over the last decade, women represent almost two-thirds of the US study abroad population.


Is study abroad still dominated by white students?

It seems that as US higher education is becoming more diverse, so is study abroad. The progress in this area might be described as “slow but steady”. Interestingly, Hispanics / Latinx students are now the 2nd-highest participating group in study abroad. Recent studies have shown that first-generation Hispanic / Latinx students are the fastest growing segment in higher education so this is not a surprising development. Research done by Spanish Studies Abroad showed that this segment was around 25% of our total student population in recent years.


“Short-term” study is most prevalent

Open Doors defines “short-term” as programs of 8 weeks or less. Their research indicates that approximately two-thirds - 64% - of US study abroad students take short-term courses. This has evolved significantly over the past two decades from the time when study abroad was often a semester or academic year-long program focusing on language studies. The most popular types of short term programs are faculty-led trips, summer courses or January / Winter term courses. We believe that the decrease in prevalence in semester programs is related to the high cost of US education - students are burdened with debt and there is a fear of not graduating on time.


Speaking of fears, what concerns do students report? 

Research in 2014 indicated that 3 fears of students stood out: 1. The ability to afford an international student experience 2. Language differences and 3. Safety. Other research has indicated that cost is the number one factor that prevents students from studying abroad. Universities that wish to increase their study abroad numbers have to grapple with these issues: Are they willing to extend financial aid for study abroad programs? Will they dedicate any resources for additional grants? Then, program offerings become an issue - students not looking for language study programs want content delivered in English and they don’t want to go to unsafe destinations, which is natural.

About the author

David Anderson works for Spanish Studies Abroad, and has traveled the globe for work and leisure. David regularly comments on study abroad news, and believes that travel for self-improvement - learning languages and discovering cultures - helps to bring the world closer together. You can find the full resource here.



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