Is studying abroad a waste of time or a key ingredient for baking a global citizen?

The Takeaway

More college students in the US are being encouraged to study abroad. But is it worth it?

Photo by Derek Jensen/Wikimedia Commons

Study abroad is a right of passage for many of today’s youth. But fewer students do it than you might think. And now people are questioning its value.

When the New York Times questioned the merits of study abroad recently, it ignited a storm. Many people argue the experience is more important than ever to prepare students for life in an increasingly interconnected world. Others claim it is often a waste of money.

In the 2010-2011 academic year, 273,996 U.S. students studied abroad for academic credit. That number may sound large, but it represents just a tiny sliver — just over 1 percent — of the students enrolled in post-secondary education.

Mark Salisbury says the experience can be hugely important. He's one of the authors of the monograph "Renewing the Promise, Refining the Purpose: Study Abroad in a New Global Century," 

"[It's] something that shakes you and really puts you out of your comfort zone, at least ideally," Salisbury says. "The learning that really matters is what happens after that experience and how you make sense of it."

He argues the true value has less to do with the skills students learn while abroad, and more to do with the changes they make in their lives after their experiences.

Sure, Salisbury admits, some of the study abroad programs could be better and use some tweaks, but studying abroad is a worthy experience for students fortunate enough to have the opportunity.

Curtis S. Chin is one of the skeptics. He was the US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank from 2007 to 2010 and wrote an opinion piece for the Times questioning the importance of study abroad in this day and age. For one thing, it touches very few people.

"Let's focus on taking care of all of our students. Certainly it would be great if everyone could study overseas," says Chin. "Let's be realistic. Let's take care of the students studying here."

Roughly 21 million students are getting post-secondary education in the US at any given time, and fewer than 300,000 will study abroad. 

"There are so many ways students can get out of their comfort zones, in the United States," he argues.

Chinn says America is such a diverse place already. The country would benefit more if elite college students worked, studied or volunteered in a poor or struggling community here at home.

What's more, Chinn says, most of the places Americans are studying abroad aren't all that different from where they live. The top 10 list is dominated by places in Europe.

So what do you thinK? Did you study or live abroad? Have you worked or volunteered in struggling communities in the US? Should study abroad be a defining experience for college-aged students, or should something else become the norm? Share your insights in the comments below.