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Study abroad? Many U.S. college students drop or rethink their plans

Economic reality and money problems may be cooling the enthusiasm of U.S. college students to study abroad, just two years after students' interest in foreign study was at an all-time high.

Economic reality and money problems may be cooling the enthusiasm of U.S. college students to study abroad, just two years after students' interest in foreign study was at an all-time high.

Four times as many students went abroad in the 2007-2008 academic year as 20 years ago, according to a survey of 985 schools released this week by the Institute of International Education, a nonprofit advocacy group.

But nearly 60 percent of the schools and study-abroad groups surveyed in early September by The Forum on Education Abroad report decreased enrollment from a year ago, since the global economic crisis.

UND impact

UND noted a 53 percent drop in the number of students studying abroad in the 2008-2009 academic year, according to Jane Sykes Wilson, education abroad adviser, with the Office of International Programs.

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She said UND has an average of 250 students studying abroad each year, normally with slight variations -- for example, the 2007-2008 numbers were down about 7 percent from 2006-2007.

But last year's big drop is connected to the poor economy, she said, because student recruitment and planning for many of the faculty-led international programs begins in August or September. Many programs were canceled because there was a lower perceived student interest, Wilson said.

"They didn't feel like committing at that time because that was actually when the market crashed," she said.

Things have improved this academic year -- UND is up 18 percent compared with this time last year, she said, and some canceled programs were resumed.

Wilson said UND has many exchange programs where a student would pay the regular tuition and fees and then pay flight costs and cost-of-living expenses while abroad. Still, there is a common perception studying abroad is more expensive, even if that's not always the case, she said.

The poor economy has actually caused some students to seek an international semester because it helps them stand out in a tough job market. Wilson said her office is seeing an increase in business students interested in studying in China, "and that's because they're seeing that need in the market."

The economy also has increased the number of students choosing to study in "nontraditional locations" such as Eastern Europe, Asia and South America. She said the cost of living there is cheaper than more common destinations such as Western Europe and Australia.

National impact

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At Macalester College in St. Paul, which typically sends more than 60 percent of its students abroad, study abroad enrollment this fall dropped 25 percent from the same time last year, said spokeswoman Amy Phenix.

Enrollment in abroad programs at the University of South Alabama fell dramatically this summer, possibly because students had to use all of their financial aid for the regular fall and spring semesters, said Jim Ellis, director of South Alabama's Office of International Education. For the academic year ending in summer 2009, enrollment in abroad programs dropped 50 percent.

"We're seeing an awful lot of students who are very interested in study abroad, but virtually every one of them is asking about funding," he said.

A tough choice

The Forum on Education Abroad said 69 percent of its public institutions surveyed had seen drops in abroad enrollment, compared with 49 percent of private institutions.

David Lerner, a freshman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the potential debt is what's keeping him from going abroad. If he had gone to a less expensive state school, he might have considered it.

John Regnery, 19, a sophomore Japanese major at Texas, has been dreaming of a six-week intensive language program in Japan. He's one-quarter Japanese and has always wanted to go there.

"I have showed my mom the cost and, of course, airfare. She recognizes that it's going to be over $10,000 and it's like, 'Oh my goodness," he said. "Is it worth this amount of money? Worth my parents possibly having to draw out loans?"

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But not every school has seen recent drops in abroad enrollments, and some administrators believe their dips are temporary. At Macalester, for example, officials said interest is strong for spring programs.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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