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Study abroad recovering from COVID-19

Schools show optimism about the future of their programs after pandemic disruptions


Study abroad recovering from COVID-19

For the fall 2020 semester, some 180 students who had planned to study abroad through Verto Education instead fulfilled general education credits while listening to guest lecturers from around the world. “It was not what any of us had hoped or envisioned,” Verto co-founder Ben Welbourn said, “but we definitely made the most of it.”

Verto, like many study abroad programs, found itself in a bind when the pandemic hit and restrictions forced the program to go virtual temporarily. The COVID-19 pandemic squashed students’ plans to travel around the world over the past year. But interest in such programs seems to be recovering.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of students choosing to study abroad was growing steadily. In the 2018-2019 school year (the most recent available data), 347,099 American students studied abroad, according to Open Doors, a resource of the Institute of International Education. That’s up from 260,327 a decade earlier. According to the same report, 11 percent of U.S. undergraduate students study abroad at some point, including 16.1 percent of bachelor’s degree students.

Statistics for 2020 and 2021 aren’t yet available, but in May 2020, NAFSA: Association of International Educators reported 94 percent of schools shortened or canceled their spring or summer study abroad programs in 2020. The potential loss to U.S. higher education institutions added up to almost $1 billion. In July 2020, NAFSA warned 2020-2021 “could turn into the year without study abroad.” Nearly all participating universities initially anticipated less interest in those programs. But the dip may have been temporary: Half of U.S. universities now expect renewed interest as a new school year begins.

In the spring 2021 semester, Verto returned to in-person programs, with 150 students studying in three destinations. This fall, 650 Verto students will travel to Costa Rica, Spain, England, and Italy, or participate in the organization’s domestic program in Hawaii. Welbourn expects 2,000 students in fall 2022. Of the 68 colleges Verto partners with, he estimates half joined the program in the last year.

Welbourn said that he doesn’t think interest in studying abroad ever waned, but early uncertainty about the pandemic made many hesitate. “We are definitely seeing pent-up demand where people are like, ‘I am really sick of taking classes—college classes—living at home with my parents, and sitting on the couch,” he said. “So they’re ready to go, parents are definitely ready for them to go, and we’re seeing it in the numbers.”

Caroline Donovan White, senior director of education abroad services at NAFSA, said that the delta variant could complicate some colleges’ plans. In an email, she listed some of the challenges of studying abroad during a pandemic, such as delays and complications getting visas or passports and fluctuating inter-country travel requirements. White pointed to the European Union’s decision on Monday to reinstate a travel ban on Americans. In the 2018-2019 school year, 40 percent of U.S. study abroad students studied in EU countries, with another 11.3 percent in the United Kingdom.

Lauren Dunn

Lauren covers education for WORLD’s digital, print, and podcast platforms. She is a graduate of Thomas Edison State University and World Journalism Institute. She lives with her family in Wichita, Kan.


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