Freshman Study Abroad: A Fix for the Higher Education Crisis

Gap Year Programs Research Purpose and Direction

There is a crisis in higher education. And, freshman study abroad programming could be a critical part of the solution. In this series, I’ll explore how freshman study abroad can bring value back to higher education. I’ll also share Thinking Beyond Borders’ research and experience related to the design principles of successful freshman abroad programming. 

There is a crisis in higher education. Virtually everyone is questioning its form, its function, and most importantly, its value. Is a traditional university degree worth the money? Is it worth the time? Is it worth the effort?

The response to this crisis is in its early days, but everyone from higher education leaders to disenchanted undergrads to tech sector innovators seems to be holding little as sacred. There is a startling willingness to disregard the institution of higher education and start over.

The discourse around this crisis is focused on what is wrong with higher education. But, what we should be asking is this: Why aren’t students gaining value from higher education? When we ask this question, we acknowledge the unparalleled learning opportunities colleges offer that are dramatically underutilized by undergraduates. Effective solutions to this crisis should be innovations that leverage the existing value of higher education rather supplant it. While it isn’t a complete solution, freshman study abroad is a great place to start.

Higher Education’s Crisis: The Fire and Those Who Fan the Flames

It’s not hard to find news on the fire burning down the house of higher education. The average undergraduate degree has been deemed too expensive and lacking in value in the job market. Students and their families are taking on enormous debt that threatens both their solvency and, possibly, the nation’s economy. If they aren’t graduating with the skills to be highly productive, they won’t earn at a level high enough to repay their loans. And, if all of this weren’t bad enough, there are still millions who face serious barriers to obtaining an undergraduate degree.

There are many who – perhaps rightly – see this crisis as an opportunity. Higher education is notoriously risk averse as a sector; when an industry is built largely upon reputation, few are willing to weather the iterative process of innovation (i.e. the cycles of getting it wrong that are necessary for one to learn to get it right).

But, as the flames around the institution get hotter, some are finding the impetus to take risks. Harvard and MIT are collaborating to advance online learning with MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), a widely hyped model for providing course material to virtually anyone around the globe. Peter Thiel, Co-Founder of Paypal, has created a fellowship to encourage students to drop out of college to create technology and organizations representing meaningful work. Dale Stephens, a Thiel Fellow, is leading the “uncollege” movement, encouraging students to avoid college by “hacking” their way to the learning they need (his book Uncollege was recently published to much fanfare). These high profile examples are representative of the efforts to address the crisis.

But, what if these “solutions” actually fan the flames?

If the “flames” engulfing higher education are symbolic of inadequate student learning, there is cause for concern with these “solutions.” Student outcomes for MOOCs are largely unmeasured. Investments in expanding access through online courses may actually deliver low quality learning to more people. The Thiel Fellowship is a wonderful concept, but when I met one 18 year old fellow at a conference recently, she baffled me with her apparent inability to think critically about whether rural communities in South Africa should be treated as unwitting testing grounds for her projects. Dale Stephens’ “uncollege” may be a viable model for business and high tech entrepreneurs, but where will we get the doctors, teachers, and CPA’s that keep us healthy, prepared for our future, and running our innovative new businesses with sound finances? As each of these innovations gains press coverage and funding, their potential to undermine the existing value of higher education grows stronger. They may be fanning the flames.

A Problem and a Solution

College and university campuses offer unparalleled concentrations of learning opportunities. Faculty offer expertise in virtually everything. Facilities include labs, classrooms, and libraries to support dynamic learning and research. Flexible schedules and communities allow students to explore multiple paths and bring together disparate interests in innovative ways. Co-curricular opportunities include study abroad, internships, and athletics that develop key skills like communication, leadership, and creativity. And, educators work with determination to make all of these opportunities functional parts of student learning. Higher education in its current form is overflowing with the exact value we want students to gain.

Gap Year Programs Research Purpose and Direction

Research shows gap year programs with intentional structure and design help establish purpose and direction in students.

So, what’s the problem? Students are arriving on campus as freshmen without the purpose or direction needed to effectively take advantage of the learning higher education offers. Students generally feel the purpose of their learning in high school was to get good grades and test scores to get into college. High school wasn’t about pursuing their interests, exploring critical social issues, or preparing for a professional career aligned with their values. After 13 years of schooling, students arrive on college campuses without clear purpose for their learning.

But, the way colleges are often designed, an intrinsic motivation is requisite for students to take advantage of the learning opportunities their campuses offer. While students get by doing the basic work assigned as part of classes, the richest learning happens when students have a vision for why their studies matter to them and society. Additionally, the strongest learning is when classroom study is coupled with pursuit of their passions through clubs, internships, or study abroad. Without the sense of purpose necessary to commit fully to this learning, even the highest achieving high school students report feeling lost or unmotivated.

There is no single or simple solution to this problem. But, we can learn from what is already working to help students develop the purpose and direction they need. One of the most common ways is study abroad. Students returning from quality programs often report a clearer sense of direction and ownership of their learning. Faculty report that students returning from abroad tend to pursue academic interests with more passion, get more engaged in the classroom, and assume more leadership in co-curricular activities. What would higher education look like if students returned to campus after studying abroad as freshmen with the purpose, direction, and maturity we see in traditional study abroad students?

The second post in this series, Bringing Purpose to Higher Education, highlights research on how educational programs can help students develop the purpose they need to gain value from higher education. The third post, The Value of Freshman Study Abroad, features a testimonial from the parent of college students speaking to the cost and value of preparing students for college through study abroad programming. The final post, Freshman Study Abroad: A Model for Success, illustrates a model for this type of programming that melds best practices of study abroad and gap year to deliver transformative programs to students in the college transition.

Learn more about Thinking Beyond Borders international education model by exploring our gap year programs.

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