As a study abroad advisor, I spend the majority of my meetings helping students understand the different types of study abroad programs.
The types of programs available to students at each institution can vary. But, there are similar layouts of programs across institutions.
As a bit of background, in the past few years, the study abroad field (also known as international education) has grown considerably.
The biggest increase has been on short-term programs (more on this in a bit).
According to the most recent Open Doors Report (published by the Institute of International Education), 62 percent of all study abroad participation in the United States comes from programs that are up to eight weeks in duration.
There was also an increase in overall participation on study abroad programs over the previous year by five percent.
With initiatives by the U.S. Government to increase study abroad opportunities for US students including hosting a blog conference to brainstorm ideas, more students will study abroad (more than the 10 percent who study abroad today)!
So… What does this all mean for students who are interested in studying abroad, but don’t know where to start?
Let’s break it down by program.
When talking about study abroad programs, most people initially think about study abroad as something that students can do during college.
Here are the typical types of study abroad programs available for university students.
Short-term programs include all study abroad programs that are at most eight weeks in duration. However, at universities and colleges, the actual definition of short-term study abroad programs depend on the institution.
Some short-term programs are faculty-led programs, some are summer semester programs with program providers, some programs are direct enroll programs during summer or winter terms, some are non-credit programs, and some programs are optional off-campus components of on-campus courses (still treated as faculty-led programs). Each of these programs offer different levels of support, depending on the program.
Faculty-led programs are exactly what the name implies – study abroad (or study away) programs where a faculty member from the home university accompanies students on the program.
Some institutions send faculty on semester-long programs with partner institutions or providers as on-site support in addition to instructors, and some faculty lead short-term programs.
For most institutions, the majority of faculty-led programs are short-term programs, led by a current faculty member (or qualified staff member), that offer resident credit at the home university. The primary contact (for logistics and emergencies) for the program is the faculty leader, and there may be some required on-campus meetings prior to the program.
When faculty-led programs are at the destination, the course is intensive, involves a large amount of contact hours with the professor, and includes limited free time. The types of assignments vary by professor, but can include portfolio submissions, research opportunities, journals, site visits, and more.
Faculty-led programs are ideal for any student who:
- needs resident credits for their academic plans
- is interested in traveling with students from their home universities
- doesn’t want or need extensive time to explore their destination country
- can’t fit an entire semester of study abroad into their academic plans
- is eager to develop a lasting rapport with a faculty member
Using a Program Provider
Program providers are just what their names state – they provide study abroad programs to their students.
Many provider programs are pre-packaged, and come with housing options (apartment, homestay, student housing…), an on-site program staff, optional weekend and day trips, an in-depth site orientation, some group flight options, and more. Generally, program providers have robust student services: cultural exchanges, internships, volunteer opportunities, and more.
In addition, some program providers have affiliation agreements with U.S. universities that can take many forms – some providers allow their partners to send faculty members to teach at the host program site, some providers have special billing agreements so students can pay their home universities for everything (this often helps with financial aid), and some universities use their affiliation agreements with providers to allow students to enroll in courses at host universities for resident credits at their home schools.
Each affiliation agreement with program providers is set up differently at different institutions (and sometimes at the same institution); however, the ultimate goal is to ensure a beneficial and positive experience for the student participants.
Using a program provider is ideal for any student who:
- wants to have pre-arranged housing
- values having a “point-person” for academic, housing, or adjustment challenges
- would prefer having more support for obtaining a visa or residency permit
- doesn’t mind checking in with program administrators and reporting weekend travel plans
- would like a comparable amount of support abroad as at their home U.S. university
Exchange Programs at a College or University
Exchange programs at universities generally mean that there is a signed agreement (the fancy term is “memorandum of understanding”) between two (sometimes more) schools that allow for students to study at the partner institution. These agreements can be between institutions domestically or abroad; for the purpose of this description, I’ll refer to international exchange.
In each agreement, there can be details about credit transfer, housing, the application process, support for students, et cetera. For most exchanges, students pay the tuition and fees to their home universities and only have to pay for housing (as well as food and personal expenses) in their host countries.
The typical exchange set-up is a 1:1 exchange (this can also be called direct exchange, or a bilateral exchange). Let’s use USA University and UK University as examples. This ratio means that for every two students the USA University sends to UK University, two students from UK University can study at USA University. However, let’s say that USA University sends three students, and UK University only sends one – this creates an exchange imbalance, which means that USA University is going to make their application reallllllllllllly competitive the next year to correct the imbalance.
Exchanges are all about balance.
For the most part, the point person for US exchange students abroad is the international student coordinator abroad; in my experience, the English skills of these coordinators are incredible, and they are very knowledgeable about the support that students will appreciate. They email students directly about registration and required information about visas (if applicable), and many universities have useful links for students regarding housing and information about the local area.
Going on an exchange program is ideal for any student who:
- is comfortable with a fair amount of uncertainty (housing, available courses, number of credits that will transfer back…)
- is a go-getter and resourceful
- likes the idea of interacting with students from all over the world
- doesn’t need much support from administrators abroad
- is hoping to be fully immersed in the host culture and education system
This type program has a lot of similarities to exchange programs, but there isn’t the requirement of the home school having a formal relationship with the host school in order for students to participate (in my experience, many US institutions love having agreements with direct enroll schools because these programs keep the costs down for students, and provide quite a lot of on-the-ground support).
Direct enroll programs involve students working with the international student office of the desired host university directly in order to enroll as a visiting student for a semester. Then, like an exchange, the international student office will provide information on housing, visas, courses, an orientation, and other necessary details.
Students will need to work with their home universities to see what they need to do for credit transfer if there isn’t a partnership between schools.
Participating in a direct enroll program is ideal for any student who:
- is enthusiastic about interacting directly with host university administrators
- is independent
- appreciates the thought of interacting with administrators at the beginning of the program… and perhaps when problems arise
- is prepared to meet students from other schools around the US and world
- is also hoping to be fully immersed in the host culture and education system
Non-Credit Programs and Other Programs
More students look for programs and internships that will make their resumes stand out. Because of this, providers are increasing programs that include internship placements so students can have a BOGO deal.
Study abroad and an internship? Sign me up!
Internships and volunteering programs can sometimes be approved for academic credit. However, academic departments have to approve these credits (Side note: I received academic credit for my volunteering program, but there was a capstone project I had to complete for the credits).
Many students opt to participate in internships or volunteer programs because of the resume-worthy experience as opposed to academic credit.
At the end of the day, it is more useful to have a resume-building experience than an internship credit on your transcript.
As a warning, most internships abroad are unpaid and require students to pay an administrative fee in order to participate. There are a few fellowships and scholarships that support international internships; the Resources page of this website outlines a few opportunities.
Participating in a non-credit (or other) program is ideal for any student who:
- hopes to build their resume or improve their interviewing skills based on their experiences abroad
- is ready for the specific kind of program (volunteering =/= internship, for the most part)
- does not need additional academic credits from the program
- is looking for a way to interface with the work/volunteer culture of the host country
- seeks work experience (or something that can be viewed as work experience)
As with any program, check with your home school about what type of study abroad programs are available for credit.
I have worked at places where students were not allowed to participate in unaffiliated programs.
If you need some pointers on different scholarship opportunities are available, check out the Resource page. Also, make sure to research any available scholarships through your school or program provider.
No matter which program you pursue, make sure to enroll your time abroad and any side trips with the STEP Program, purchase some health insurance (if it isn’t included in your program costs), and get ready for your life-changing experience!
Which type of program did you use? What did you think about your experience? What would you have changed about your program?