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The Future of Study Abroad in a Post-Covid World

By William L. Gertz | Published: August 4, 2020

Covid-19 has upended the concept of studying abroad for students, faculty and institutions of higher learning for this upcoming academic year. And although it’s challenging to imagine how today’s uncertain times will affect the future of study abroad, I am confident that study abroad will emerge more vibrant than ever. In fact, I see a decade of growth coming.

Yes, you read that right: Growth because study abroad will continue to be one of the most important components of higher education.

Studying abroad provides students with experiences
that can't be replicated at home. 

The benefits of study abroad are more important than ever: multicultural classes, enhanced cross-cultural competency, increased personal growth and development, and broader global career opportunities are necessary to getting over the hurdle of this tumultuous pandemic and emerging from the economic recession. Globalization is not over just because borders are closed. In fact, the pandemic has made it crystal clear how important it is for teams of people around the world to be able to work together toward a solution that everyone on the planet benefits from.

Yet the fact remains that study abroad has come to a grinding halt—for now—because study abroad involves travel, pure and simple. There is no virtual or online substitute. The social aspect of studying abroad—meeting people from around the world, sharing stories and learning from one another—is irreplaceable. The in-country travel that students do as part of their program (including excursions) is arguably even more important and educational than the classroom work. When students study abroad, they learn about themselves. They grow up. They form new and deep opinions on world issues. It is, for many students, a lynchpin to their future. 

While the industry is on “pause,” I suggest that we work toward creating change that will enable study abroad to lift off as soon we’re cleared for take-off, including:

A white female college student in warm hat and missions poses in front of an alpine village.
Though stalled in 2020, study abroad will be back,
better and more accessible than ever. 
  • No increase in standard student fees (tuition, flights, accommodations, etc.) in the near term.
  • Increase in insurance products, such as “cancel for any reason” to provide peace of mind for anxious parents.
  • Increased cleanliness and compliance with new government health regulations on campuses worldwide.
  • Ability to pivot to online study should the need arise. 
  • Student deadlines being extended, and more flexible program options being available.
  • Convergence of green initiatives and over-tourism issues making study abroad programs less mass-market and more individual with shorter, customized itineraries. 
  • Continued diversification as organizations employ changes (to their programs and their organization’s profile) as an outgrowth of the Black Lives Matter movement. 
  • Utilization of a couple of pre-departure online courses to both lower the cost of the program and expand and diversify the cohort of students seeking an overseas experience. 

In the past few decades, those of us involved with study abroad have experienced many challenges, such as 9/11, the wars in Iraq, and economic recessions. As with these past hurdles, it will end.  A vaccine—or a worldwide consensus that students will be safe to travel—is when we see the light at the end of this tunnel. 

But for now, let’s all look ahead. Take this time to make our programs, organizations and institutions stronger and more inclusive. We have an opportunity to make the study abroad experience even better than it was before by being resilient, creative—and always thinking forward.

About the Author

William L. Gertz is a recipient of the Centennial Medal from the Institute of International Education (IIE) and has received an Honorary Doctorate in International Relations from Richmond, the American International University in London. With more than 40 years of experience in international education, he is a pioneer in the field and has made cultural exchange his life’s work. Bill is Chairman and CEO of AIFS.

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