Why Employers Should Pay for College Abroad Programs

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Written by Sage Corps founder & CEO, Matt Meltzer.

In this period of national jobs growth, it remains a competitive market for new college graduates. Just 47 percent find full-time employment within one year of graduation. Compare that to the 97 percent of college students who participate in a college abroad program—they find full-time employment, on average, within one year of graduation, according to statistics recently compiled by the University of California at Merced. 

Apart from the many soft-skills that study abroad and intern abroad programs offer students, the improved employability outcome now enjoys empirical support. Last year, the nonprofit Institute for International Education (IIE) published the findings of an exciting study that linked the study abroad experience to various professional skills valued by employers. Unfortunately, the number of students who enjoy these benefits is miniscule. Less than 2 percent of U.S. college students go abroad each year according to IIE’s latest Open Doors Report. And forget “the 1 percent”—the latest numbers show that just one-tenth of 1 percent (.1%) get global work experience. Perhaps worst of all—the latest IIE report shows the growth rate for these stats has slowed from 46 percent during the last ten years to 19 percent during the last five years. Meanwhile, the world gets smaller and more connected at an incredible pace (it’s not fake news). Today’s global economy requires a globally trained workforce. These numbers, however, won’t cut it.

Global experience doesn’t come easy, or cheap. We don’t need any data to deduce that a major deterrent to leaving the country for any purpose, whether to travel, study abroad or intern abroad is the cost. Even a plane ticket to South America or Europe may cost more than $1,000. Add in the logistical complexities, and the extensive time away from family and friends, it’s no surprise that over 98 percent of U.S. college students stay on campus each year.

In its most recent May 2018 white paper, IIE called for “greater communication between higher education and industry as colleges and universities develop academic programs that will help students cultivate the skills that employers require.” Great start. But until we lift the financial burden of global experience from students and their families, the statistics will not improve significantly. Armed with the recent IIE data and the acknowledgement that global study and work experience ultimately benefits business, let’s shift the cost of study abroad and international internship programs from debt-ridden students to the deeper-pocketed, third-party beneficiary who previously got a free ride: employers.

One potential model already exists: 100,000 Strong in the Americas Innovation Fund, which the U.S. State Department launched with NAFSA and private corporate donors to fund innovative study abroad programs for university students in the U.S. and Latin America. Thus far, the program has put $9 million to work: Exxon Mobil and Chevron funded science and engineering programs to create “a global engineering workforce”; Santander Bank funded business programs and a program for “women in STEM”; and the Coca-Cola Foundation funded a public health program. The result? College grads with international experience in Spanish and English—but also potential entry-level candidates with highly relevant skills for those company sponsors.

Other entry level tech employers spend big money to sponsor student-run hackathons where students build new products from scratch within hours. The winning team gets instant street cred on Snapchat, but the real winners get lucrative job offers from a company sponsor who seeks out the student standouts. 

Employers could easily earmark scholarships for aspiring engineers, marketers, designers and data analysts to first get international internship experience in these fields. After coming home, the student would enter the company to complete a subsequent internship or as a full-time hire. For the same cost that many organizations pay their own employees who refer new hires, and at a lower cost than many employer-sponsored training programs and graduate degrees (MBAs), hackathons or “boot camps,” employers can leverage college abroad programs to build diverse talent pipelines with global experience. Imagine the recruitment advertising mileage that a company could leverage from this sort of program: “We would love to pay for you to go spend a summer or semester to [intern abroad or study abroad] in Sydney or Buenos Aires, and then you’ll come work with us.”  

It will take some work, but my hope is that study abroad and international internship programs will not merely be a luxury for the fortunate few, but with employers’ support, a necessity and requirement for all.