Minnesota slips in sending students to study abroad

  • Article by: JENNA ROSS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 12, 2012 - 9:18 AM

The figure dropped with the economy, but hasn't rebounded as in other states. But St. Olaf is still at No. 1.

Minnesota colleges are sending fewer students abroad as other states are sending more.

Over three years, the number of Minnesota college students who study abroad slipped 7.3 percent, a report released Monday by the Institute of International Education shows. The state's figure first dropped in 2008-09, along with the economy. But nationally, study-abroad numbers have since rebounded to record levels. Not so here.

Minnesota has long been a leader in sending students overseas for the scholarly and cultural experiences officials say are critical in today's global economy. But the state has fallen out of the top 10. For two years, it has held 11th place, an analysis of the new report shows.

Its top school is still tops. St. Olaf College in Northfield once again ranked first nationally in 2010-11, the most recent year reported, among baccalaureate institutions in the number of students who studied abroad. The University of Minnesota, which has pumped up its program over the past decade, placed third in the country among its kind.

But at several colleges, study abroad participation has stalled. At a few state universities, it fell dramatically. About 200 students at Minnesota State University, Mankato studied abroad in 2010-11, down almost 40 percent from 2007-08 and 2008-09.

"It all has to do with the economy," said Caryn Lindsay, the university's director of international programs. "Our students are often working other jobs. They have responsibilities at home. Often, they have to get co-signers to support their education.

"So when the economy went down, they had less cash available to spend on something which many people see as kind of an extra."

Elizabeth Lohrenz had her heart set on taking classes abroad since high school. At Mankato, majoring in international relations and geography, she made plans to spend a semester of her junior year in Austria, where she could refine her German. But after failing to nab a national scholarship, the program's $17,000 price tag seemed too steep.

She backed out. But she didn't give up.

The following summer, she went on a shorter, cheaper program in Russia, traveling from St. Petersburg to Magadan to Moscow.

"It was such a unique experience -- maybe a little different than the traditional study-abroad experience," said Lohrenz, who is paying for college partly through federal grants and loans. For Russia, Lohrenz got that scholarship. "It was a huge, huge blessing."

Her route reflects national trends. Since the recession, more students have chosen shorter programs, according to the "Open Doors" report.

Colleges find other options

Colleges and universities must be more flexible to help students find ways to get abroad, said Allan Goodman, of the Institute of International Education. "Probably very few people" can study abroad during junior year, as is traditional, he noted.

In the past decade, the University of Minnesota has nearly doubled the number of its students who study abroad.

After a two-year drop, the university's numbers rebounded in 2010-11, thanks in part to a focus on first-year students. About 2,560 students on the Twin Cities campus studied abroad in 2010-11, the third-highest total among doctoral institutions, the report shows. Only New York University and Michigan State University counted more.

"We've created a range of options for students," including first-year seminars with a chance to study internationally, said Meredith McQuaid, associate vice president and dean of international programs. Oftentimes, "students who are exposed to short-term study abroad take advantage of studying abroad for a longer time before they graduate."

At St. Olaf, fewer students are going on shorter programs, said Eric Lund, director of international and off-campus studies. Meanwhile, the college has seen a slight uptick in semester-long programs, for which it's sometimes easier to get financial aid. Overall, the college's total numbers have plateaued.

"When we've asked students about the barriers, usually cost is at the top of the list," Lund said. But he also wonders if the push toward internships and research have more students choosing those practical opportunities instead.

Other states catching up

Nationally, more students are choosing destinations outside of Europe, although the United Kingdom, Italy and Spain still top the list. But countries such as China and India are making gains. While the slice of students who study abroad is still small, participation has tripled over the past two decades, the report says. After a dip in 2008-09, it grew again. In 2010-11, it rose 1.3 percent.

'A mecca for study abroad'

Minnesota's participation dipped in 2010-11 by 0.2 percent. Some of Minnesota's slide in the national rankings is due to other states' gains. Minnesota has always lagged behind states with much bigger populations, including California and New York, but it used to beat Illinois, Indiana and Michigan. No longer.

"Minnesota has been considered a mecca for study abroad," said Sarah Spencer, director of study abroad at the University of St. Thomas. "We were, as a state, ahead of the country for a very long time.

"Other states are catching up."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168 Twitter: @ByJenna

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