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Study Abroad Faces a New Reality

With no clear timeline for putting students on planes again, study abroad providers face layoffs and uncertain futures. And when they do resume regular programming, they'll need new health and safety protocols.

April 28, 2020
 
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The study abroad field has never faced a moment like this.

Colleges and the independent study abroad provider organizations they work with have had to bring students home from specific countries due to conflicts or natural disasters before, but never before have they had to bring home all students worldwide, as they did this spring when the COVID-19 pandemic started.

After students were safely home, and after arrangements were made to move their courses online, study abroad providers turned to questions of their own financial viability. With study abroad all but suspended for summer and the possibility of students studying abroad this fall still uncertain, study abroad provider organizations have laid off staff, in some cases 50 percent or more of their employees.

Study abroad provider organizations have begun planning for various scenarios for fall and have rolled out new virtual exchange programs, such as virtual international internships, as well as hybrid options.

"We are planning for a variety of realities for the fall," said Lorna Stern, vice president at Arcadia University, in Pennsylvania, and executive director of its College of Global Studies, which operates study abroad programs that enroll students from a variety of colleges.

"One is that with modifications around student safety and well-being and the well-being of our staff and faculty, we are planning that we will be able to deliver on-site programming, but we're also thinking about if we can't do that fully what else might we do. I fully suspect that the kinds of pivots that we've done this summer and the kinds of curriculum and programs that we've developed for the summer we'll try to develop for the fall."

For example, Arcadia is offering a new Virtual Europe program this summer in which students can enroll in online courses taught by faculty in London, Dublin, Edinburgh, Barcelona, Granada, Athens or Rome at the cost of $1,500 per course and, for an additional $1,950 fee, participate in virtual internships with employers in Athens, London or Rome.

Stern said the challenges that higher education institutions in general are facing are very similar to those faced by study abroad providers -- but with other considerations “that in some ways make the challenges a little bit more exponential.”

For example, Stern said even in the event some overseas host institutions are ready and able to receive study abroad students in time for fall, students’ home institutions are unlikely to approve study abroad as long as the State Department warns against travel globally. And before study abroad could happen, Stern said, regular passport and visa processing has to resume. Another consideration, she said, is how much domestic travel countries are allowing by plane.

“All of those questions will affect the capacity of study abroad organizations to truly be able to function,” she said. “I think there’s a real question: in absence of therapies, what is the true capacity of institutions to teach on-site in person going forward, and that’s an unknown.”

Another unknown is how the financial crisis brought about by the pandemic -- and the fact that many students' families are losing incomes and students are losing summer jobs -- could affect demand for study abroad and students' perceived or actual ability to pay for it.

And even after travel warnings and restrictions lift, operators of study abroad programs will have to consider a whole new set of issues around student health and safety before they can resume in-person programming.

“Institutions really need to look at what worked this spring and what could have worked better,” said Melissa Torres, the president and CEO of the Forum on Education Abroad, a professional association for the field. “Is there a contingency plan in place if there is a second or third wave? If you send students abroad, what happens if you have to bring them back from certain countries or from the entire world, as we had to do in the spring? I think the ability to reasonably ensure the health and safety related to COVID-19 and our preparation for that is one of the big questions facing us.”

“It’s really clear that our crisis management protocols and expectations are going to shift; they’ve already been escalating over the last 10 years,” added Heather Barclay Hamir, the president and CEO of the Institute for Study Abroad (IFSA), a nonprofit study abroad provider based in Indiana. “Now we have conversations about how do we need to adapt our housing to deal with the potential for government-imposed quarantines or a student who might need to go into self-isolation. Where we have students housed with what might be a vulnerable population, should we go forward?”

“It’s going to be ongoing,” Hamir continued. “With SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome], they controlled it and eliminated it; there wasn’t a need to anticipate how to respond globally. This is going to create a lot of conversations about how to respond. I think in terms of education abroad within the higher education context, we’ll have to see how institutions continue to prioritize those opportunities when the entire institution is under duress.”

Financial Pressures: Revenues Gone, Refunds Requested

IFSA is one of a number of study abroad providers that laid off staff -- according to Hamir, a little more than half its U.S.-based team, or about 30 people. “It was incredibly difficult to take those steps, but after suspending our programs globally in March, our focus had to shift to preserving the mission of the organization,” she said. Hamir said IFSA made adjustments to its financial model on the assumption there will be very little study abroad for the remainder of the calendar year, with study abroad beginning to come back next spring -- but at lower levels than before.

William L. Gertz, the chairman for the American Institute for Foreign Study, another study abroad provider, said AIFS laid off about 15 percent of its staff in anticipation of lower enrollments in the coming year, the first layoffs since the 2008 financial crisis.

"Well-established study abroad providers will weather the crisis as long as they have sufficient financial resources," Gertz said. "Small ones will struggle if the enrollments do not recover this year. It is similar to what will happen in higher education. It is a difficult time for everyone, but especially for the students who really want to study abroad."

One of the largest study abroad providers, the Council on International Educational Exchange, sent shock waves through the field in late March when it announced it was laying off more than 650 staff members -- 248 people at its headquarters in Maine, an additional 107 staff based elsewhere in the U.S. and more than 300 internationally. James P. Pellow, CIEE’s president and CEO, said that before the coronavirus crisis started, CIEE had about 1,000 staff worldwide and was operating in 59 locations in about 40 countries. Enrollments were at record levels.

“When we were faced with what the world was faced with in March, with the rapid unraveling of the ability to travel, the restrictions that were coming daily, literally, and we had to help about 4,000 students get home and complete their spring semesters, we realized that it is unlikely that the world is going to heal before the fall, maybe not even until the spring of 2021,” Pellow said. “Since we’re a nonprofit that relies on student fees to survive, we decided to do our best to recalibrate how big we were in terms of locations and staffing.”

CIEE has suspended operations at 28 of its overseas locations while maintaining 31 others. “For example, we think London is a good place to stay open, so we’re maintaining staff in our location in London,” Pellow said. “We have suspended Beijing, maintaining Shanghai, but if there’s a demand for Beijing and Taipei, we have the ability to open swiftly and we can recruit staff and get back to business.”

Pellow doesn’t think students will be limited in their options when study abroad does resume: “It’s a business that’s pretty flexible and pretty adaptable,” he said. “Over the last few years, we have opened or shut or suspended anywhere between three to five programs a year depending on demand.”

Elena D. Corbett, the director of education abroad for AMIDEAST, a nonprofit that operates programs in the Middle East, is worried about a potentially irreversible loss of capacity and know-how during this crisis.

“All those vendors you trust and who you know and who comply with U.S. university standards for health and safety and security and quality, that takes resources to develop, and it doesn’t happen overnight, so when you shut your doors at these overseas centers, the idea that you’re going to bring it back easily or quickly or ever, I don’t think that’s realistic,” she said.

“There’s a reason universities like to work with independent provider organizations,” Corbett said. “If we’re all gone -- and we might all be gone, depending on how long this lasts and all these factors that we can’t account for -- something is really lost, because the university is not going to be able to pick this up. They’re not going to be able to establish all the partnerships. And they’re certainly not going to do this in the global South.” (Many colleges offer their own study abroad programs but use provider organizations to supplement the programs they offer on their own.)

Even as they’re grappling with their own existential questions, study abroad providers are -- like colleges -- facing requests for partial refunds for their disrupted spring terms, not just from students but also from the partnering colleges that send students their way.

Different providers have taken different approaches to refunds. Some, like IFSA, are going program by program or student by student to determine what expenses are recoverable and refunding that money to students. Others, like AMIDEAST, have said they will not be issuing refunds. During a webcast hosted by the Forum on Education Abroad on the subject of refunds, Corbett said few programs costs were recoverable or uncommitted by the point in the semester when in-person programs were suspended.

“We’re very empathetic, but we just don’t have it,” Corbett said of money for refunds in an interview. “The idea of trying to take that back from global South institutions is very difficult. Not only do we not have it, it would be taking away from the local communities that have been partnering with us all of these years and that is a trust and that is serious, and they are so underresourced.”

No doubt some institutions have more capacity to offer refunds than others and, in general, independent study abroad providers have fewer resources to draw upon than universities. The University of Connecticut committed to providing prorated room and board refunds for all 160 students who studied abroad on Connecticut-sponsored programs this spring (the approximately 140 students who were studying on direct exchange programs with foreign universities or who studied through independent study abroad providers had to negotiate their own refunds, though Connecticut is refunding the $475 study abroad fee for all 300 of its students who studied abroad this spring, regardless of whom they studied with).

Yuhang Rong, Connecticut's associate vice president for global affairs, said Connecticut is trying to recover what expenses from its partners it can, but that contracts were mostly paid out for this semester’s programs, meaning that the vast majority of the $516,333 budgeted for room and board refunds for students who studied abroad will come as a loss from UConn’s coffers. Over all, Connecticut expected to spend about $30 million on refunds for room and board for students who were living on campus or studying abroad on Connecticut-sponsored programs this spring.

“It’s a very generous gesture from the university,” Rong said.

“There’s been a wide range of refund policies,” said Torres, of the Forum on Education Abroad. “I sympathize with the fact that sometimes you have unrecoverable costs that are part of doing business and you can’t refund what you don’t have, and then there are other people who argue, 'Well, students shouldn’t suffer because you had to pay things in advance of their programs on their behalf.' I think it’s really important for people to take the long view. We’re all in this because we believe in education abroad, and we need to work together and understand that the actions taken have repercussions in provider organizations and beyond. Sometimes it’s not just a contractual obligation -- there’s moral obligation. We all have worked with home-stay families or that two-person tour guide company that was also counting on this revenue and has made investments. I know some of the larger program providers that employ their own faculty and staff abroad -- they still have that expense, which may not be so readily apparent to the student or the family or even the host schools.”

Torres added that it’s not just independent study abroad providers that are under financial pressure: study abroad offices within colleges, many of which are supported by the revenue they get from program fees, are also feeling the pain.

“Clearly, there’s been an impact on departmental budgets on campus, whether we’re talking about the unexpected expenses that came from refunds or assistance getting students back to the U.S. or the loss of tuition and fees for summer programs, etc., etc.,” she said. “Departments that are self-funding are really under tremendous pressure.”

New Models for International Education

The School for International Training, a nonprofit undergraduate study abroad provider and graduate institution based in Vermont, did not provide refunds for room and board, citing unexpected expenses it incurred in bringing students home early and ongoing and irrecoverable costs for this spring. But for students whose programs were disrupted, SIT is offering scholarships covering 50 percent of tuition and room and board for a future summer or semester study abroad program, or a 40-percent-off scholarship to attend a SIT graduate program.

“This was a genuine attempt from us to make up for the fact that they were not able to have the experience that they hoped for,” said Sophia Howlett, SIT’s president. SIT's parent organization, the World Learning Organization, received almost $4.9 million in funding from the Paycheck Protection Program, a federal program approved as part of the economic stimulus package that offers forgivable loans to small businesses and nonprofits to keep workers employed during the coronavirus crisis.

SIT, like other study abroad providers, is planning for various scenarios in the fall, including a delayed start date for on-site programs and a hybrid model where students start their fall coursework online or at SIT's Vermont campus and travel abroad when possible. “Plan C, we have a whole ton of new ideas,” Howlett said. Among them, SIT has been experimenting with virtual internship programs and online programs in less commonly taught languages that are linked to an optional monthlong immersive experience in country.

“In my opinion, this pandemic is only accelerating what has already been in motion in regard to study abroad for a long time,” said Anthony C. Ogden, the associate vice provost for global engagement at the University of Wyoming and co-editor of the forthcoming book Education Abroad: Bridging Scholarship and Practice (Routledge).

“We’ve been doing virtual internships already, we’ve been doing virtual exchanges, but one of the problems, I think, and the reason why we haven’t moved more swiftly is education abroad folks have still heavily relied on destination travel, and I have been saying for 15 years now we need to move away from that way of thinking, from 'where' to 'what,'" Ogden said. "I think if you go around the country, you’ll still see universities asking students where they want to go rather than what they want to study or need to learn in order to be successful with their careers or whatever else. These offices that are still focused on destination travel, I think, are going to be harder hit, but those offices that have already made the transition more towards disciplines, I think, are going to be more prepared to offer virtual learning in ways that are exciting.”

“This is a huge blow to international education, but it doesn’t mean international education is any less important,” Ogden said. “How do we engage students in international learning and international understanding in new ways? I think that’s what we’ve got to be focused on.”

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