How Virtual Study Abroad Opportunities Meet Pandemic Challenges

By: Emma Rose Oct 14, 2020

COVID-19 has made study abroad opportunities unlikely for the 2020-2021 academic year, with no timeline for when those programs might be able to restart safely. This presents a challenge for institutions that have built marketing messages around study abroad opportunities. For many students, spending a semester or a year abroad is more about the experience than the curriculum. Many are seeking the opportunity to submerge themselves in another culture.

Institutions are facing tough questions. Should you market study abroad when travel is so uncertain? What can you offer students in place of that immersive experience? Will students still be interested in modified offerings?

Many schools are turning to online options, but students may not see the same value in these virtual offerings, as Katie Juliano, explains:

“Online learning does not offer the same cultural experience of living, studying, and socializing in another country.” Says Katie Juliano, Senior Account Manager at EducationDynamics. “Institutions should be looking for ways to replicate as much of the cultural experience as they can.”

To overcome the obstacle created by the pandemic crisis and resulting travel bans, institutions must explore the true value of these experiences, and create programs that deliver similar value. 

The study abroad market

Before the current crisis, the number of U.S. students studying abroad was growing. During the 2017-2018 academic year, the number of study abroad students grew by 9,000 to a total of 341,751. 

More than half of all U.S. study abroad students choose to study in Europe. Within Europe, the top three destinations are the United Kingdom, Italy, and Spain. Italy was among those regions hardest hit in the early days of the Pandemic. By June of 2020, while some countries had begun to re-open, several European countries were restricting incoming travel from the United States. 

While the average person might assume that most study abroad students come from Foreign Language and International Studies programs, these programs sponsor only about 7% of study abroad students. The majority are preparing to enter the STEM Fields, including Physical and Life Sciences, Health, and Engineering. The second most popular area of study is business management, which sponsors more than 20% of study abroad students. 

The portion of study abroad students who study business and management highlights the importance of study abroad programs. Student satisfaction isn’t the only thing at stake, as business becomes more globalized, they need and value graduates with international experience. A 2011 survey found that 54% of US employers value or actively seek out candidates with international study experience when recruiting. 

Seek out virtual options for study abroad

Virtual study abroad experiences can enable students to attend classes in another country without traveling. Keep in mind that this option doesn’t fully replicate the study abroad experience. Students will miss out on things such as casual interactions that happen between classes and in dorms. As you market these programs to students, acknowledge the inherent limitations of virtual study abroad experiences. 

Some students want to get a job as part of their study abroad experience. Virtual internships can enable students to work with businesses and teams in other countries.

“A lot of the intern programs are going to be popular,” Juliano said. “A lot of students want to study abroad because they want to get experience abroad, but internships will be a big help.” 

They help the student show that they can work with international teams and interact with people from diverse cultures. While, once again, casual interaction may be limited, students can still gain valuable work experience. 

Finally, institutions can consider ways to replicate those casual and cultural experiences that the other virtual options don’t quite achieve. For example, a virtual meet up could help students get to know their international classmates. Institutions might also partner with counterparts in other countries to make cultural performances, sporting events, club meetings, and other cultural experiences available via video conferencing to US students who are completing a virtual study abroad program. 

Stay open and curious

The study abroad market is fraught with uncertainty right now, and students are looking to institutions to help them navigate this new environment. Remind students that the removal of study abroad opportunities is outside the control of any single institution. Help them see the positive sides of virtual experiences. While not identical to in-person programs, they can still give students international experience that will be valuable on resumes and in job searches. They are also less costly than in-person experiences. 

It is impossible to know when in-person study abroad programs will be able to resume. However, when they do, students will have even more opportunities to study abroad. They will be able to choose between a fully immersive, in-person program, and the robust virtual experiences that this situation has encouraged institutions to create.

As always, listen to the wants and concerns of current and prospective students. Only by listening, can you create virtual study abroad programs that meet their needs while protecting their health.

EducationDynamics continuously monitors the broader landscape of higher education to help students, colleges and universities make the best enrollment decisions. Need help with your study abroad enrollment processes? Contact our Marketing Agency Services to learn more.