Study abroad guide in the United States

As the most powerful and influential country in the world, the United States is one of the top destinations for students wishing to pursue an education abroad. The United States is particularly known for its universities, many of which are ranked among the most prestigious universities in the world. This includes a group of eight of the world’s most prestigious universities known as the “Ivy League”, and other institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University.

Almost all U.S. colleges and universities operate web sites (in the .edu domain) with information for prospective students and other visitors.

Studying abroad in the United States is for a mobile global education and intercultural awareness building opportunities. Studying abroad is determined in the United States by political rationales of national security and foreign policy. The number of students studying abroad represents only about 1% of all students enrolled at institutions of higher education in the United States.

While the majority of foreign students who study in the United States are pursuing a full degree, most outgoing U.S. students study abroad for one or two academic terms. The majority of US students now choose short-term study abroad programs according to the most recent Institute of International Education Open Doors Report. In the 2008–09 academic year, the five countries US students chose to study abroad in most were the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, France, and China. The total number of US students studying abroad during 2008–2009 was 260,327, compared to 262,416 the previous year, a modest decline of 0.8%. In the 2011–2012 academic year 283,332 US students opted to study abroad, a 0.9% increase from 2008–2009; however, US students who choose to study abroad represent only 1% of all students enrolled in higher education institutions. The Open Doors report is published annually by the Institute of International Education with funding from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. However, the report found that there were notable increases in the number of U.S. students going to study in less traditional destinations. Fifteen of the top 25 destinations were outside of Western Europe and nineteen were countries where English is not a primary language.

In 2012, 764,495 international students studied in the United States. During the same time period, 274,000 US students studied abroad. This imbalance has been referred to as an “international education deficit”.

While the data from the Open Doors Report is still wide-ranging, it is not entirely inclusive of all study abroad student data that had previously been included in the annual reports. As of 2013, according to the Open Doors’ FAQs regarding the question of ‘Who is counted in the U.S. Study Abroad survey?’: “students who travel and take courses abroad that are not tracked by their home institution are not reported in Open Doors, nor are students who are enrolled overseas for full degrees from non-U.S. institutions.”

While focus is often placed on the “romantic” experience of visiting another culture in discussions about the benefits of study abroad, there has been some research that shows that study abroad experience has a quantitatively positive net effect on students. A study conducted from 2006-2010 showed that—during a period when only 49% of the average population of college graduates found a job within one year of graduatio—98% of students with study abroad experience had found employment within one year. Students with study abroad experience reported starting salaries 25% higher than the general student population.

Researched benefits
It has been shown that through study abroad, students can gain a better understanding of themselves, and of their culture. They improve their ability to evaluate elements of their own culture in an unbiased manner. It has also been shown that students who study abroad are more appreciative of their own culture and not just the culture that they visited. Some even say studying abroad can become a “reverse culture shock” with the differences of students when they return to their own culture. In addition, multicultural interactions become smoother and more natural for the students for the rest of their lives. It has been shown that 96% have increased self-confidence, 97% feel more mature and 98% understand their own values more clearly. Research suggests that when paired together, the use of social media and study abroad programs make second language acquisition much less difficult. Michele Back, Assistant Professor of World Languages Education at the University of Connecticut, conducted research on the positive influence Facebook has on second language acquisition for students participating in study abroad programs. Her work demonstrated that students who used Facebook to interact with native speakers, before and after their study abroad experience, found it easier to maintain long term interactions in their target language—further enhancing their second language acquisition.

Post-secondary institutions
Institutions range from some of the world’s most prestigious universities, to many lower-ranked institutions whose quality of education may be questionable.

Public universities
Most public universities are part of their respective state university systems, which are partially subsidized by state governments, and may have many campuses spread around the state, with hundreds of thousands of students. Many state university systems have a flagship campus, which is often considered to be the most prestigious among the different campuses (e.g. Berkeley for the University of California, Chapel Hill for the University of North Carolina, Madison for the University of Wisconsin, and Urbana-Champaign for the University of Illinois), some of which are widely considered to be on par with the prestigious private universities.

Private colleges
These are generally smaller (hundreds or a few thousand students), with a larger percentage of their students living on campus; some are affiliated with churches and may be more religious in character. Other kinds of colleges focus on teaching specific job skills, education for working adults, and providing inexpensive college-level education to local residents.

Although nearly all colleges are open to students regardless of race, gender, religion, etc., many were established for a particular group (e.g. African-Americans (HBCUs), women, members of a particular religion) and may still attract primarily students from that group. Several private colleges remain female-only, there are a few male-only private colleges. Some private religious colleges may expect students to practice the school’s faith, and even those that don’t usually require students to abide by that faith’s code of morality.

There are also several private for-profit universities, and they generally have an open admissions policy, though their quality of education is often questionable, with many seen as nothing more than mere diploma mills.

Federal service academies
The U.S. also has several federal service academies whose purpose is to train commissioned officers of the U.S. military, who graduate from them with a bachelor’s degree. These also admit a limited number of international students, but will require you to be enlisted in and nominated by your home country’s military. This is only possible if your country’s government is on good terms with the U.S. government.

Community colleges
These typically offer college-credit courses on an open-admissions basis; anyone with a high school degree or its equivalent and the required tuition payment can generally enroll. In large cities, open universities may offer short non-credit courses on all sorts of practical topics, from ballroom dance to buying real estate. They are a good place to learn a new skill and meet people.

Unlike in many other countries, there is no centralized governmental body which regulates the academic standards for university education, meaning that universities are by and large free to decide their own admissions process, syllabi and academic standards. This means that the quality of education, study environment, and reputation varies widely from institution to institution. This also means that there is no centralized body which manages university applications, and you will need to apply directly to each institution you are interested in attending.

However, practically all universities are accredited by non-governmental, regional academic standards bodies and many courses of study are accredited by similar bodies or by professional organizations (such as the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) for most engineering programs or the American Bar Association (ABA) for legal studies). Even within the universities, professors are often given considerably more freedom to set their own syllabi and examinations than those in many other countries, so two courses in the same subject taught by different professors can also be drastically different in their focus and difficulty.

Bachelor’s degree programs in the U.S. are typically 4 years in length, and require a student to study a broad range of subjects, including several courses outside their chosen major, in order to graduate.

Master’s degree programs, which are typically 1-2 years in length, are usually more specialized, and typically require students to take advanced level courses, and in some cases require the completion of a thesis.

PhD programs are typically at least 5 years in length, require the student to take advanced level courses, and also require the completion and successful defense of a research dissertation.

Unlike in the UK, medicine and law degree programs are graduate programs in the U.S., and fall into a special category called professional doctorates, which are typically 3 years in length for law, and 4 years in length for medicine. Dentistry and veterinary medicine are also professional doctorates that require 4 years following the undergraduate degree. Pharmacy requires 4 years for the professional doctorate earned by practitioners, but students typically enter that program after only 2 years of undergraduate studies.

Types of programs
Despite the slight decline in U.S. students studying abroad for credit in 2008–2009, study abroad is likely to continue to grow. The number of outgoing U.S. students pursuing overseas study has increased over fivefold since the late 1980s, from less than 50,000 students to more than 260,000 in 2008–09. Behind the numbers, though, has been the proliferation in the type study abroad programs. According to Lilli Engel of the American University Center of Provence, there are fundamental differences in the academic and cultural experience offered by study abroad programs today that suggest the need to create a level-based classification system for program types. In an influential Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad article, she compares “a one-month summer term, requiring little or no host language proficiency, with subject-matter classes in English, collective housing and American roommates” with “a full-year program for students of advanced linguistic proficiency housed individually in a host family and directly enrolled in local university courses or engaged in a professional internship or service-learning project.”

Motivation, interaction and their connection to developing a second-language was examined by Todd A. Hernández of Marquette University. In terms of language acquisition, there is more to learning a language than just the assumption “that study abroad is superior to home education…”. It is the interaction of the individual with the option of various opportunities, the exchange of language and ideas across cultures and the interpersonal connections established within various social settings. When these characteristics are pursued in Study Abroad, many researchers have found the “this sustained interaction is an important improvement in a Study Abroad context… contributing to language gain.”

Yet, within international education, a universally accepted method of classifying study abroad programs has proven elusive. U.S. students can choose from a wide range of study-abroad opportunities differentiated by program sponsor, curriculum, cost, program model, language and degree of integration, to name a few. While study abroad in the U.S. is by no means uniform, study abroad programs can reasonably be grouped according to (a) duration, (b) program model (c) program sponsor.

Study abroad programs are available to students throughout the year. However, the majority enroll in Semester or Summer programs (37.3% and 35.8%). Even though the total number of outbound U.S. students grew by over 100,000 from 2000/01 to 2008/09, the percentages of students studying abroad during a given term remained largely stable. However, the long-term trends of steadily relatively fewer students signing up for Academic Year programs in favor of growing enrollments in programs less than 8 weeks during the Academic Year. For working and community college students study abroad can also last as short as a week. Duration of U.S. Study Abroad (% of Total), 1999/00 – 2008/09

Term Abroad 2000/01 2001/02 2002/03 2003/04 2004/05 2005/06 2006/07 2007/08 2008/09
Summer Term 33.7 34.4 32.7 37.0 37.2 37.2 38.7 38.1 35.8
One Semester 38.5 39.0 40.3 38.1 37.5 36.9 36.3 35.5 37.3
8 Weeks or Less During Academic year 7.4 7.3 9.4 8.9 8.0 9.5 9.8 11.0 11.7
January Term 7.0 6.0 5.6 5.7 6.0 5.4 6.8 7.2 7.0
Academic Year 7.3 7.8 6.7 6.0 6.0 5.3 4.3 4.1 4.1
One Quarter 4.1 3.9 3.8 3.3 3.3 3.3 3.4 3.4 3.3
Two Quarters 0.6 0.5 0.4 0.5 1.3 0.9 0.5 0.6 0.5
Total 154,168 160,920 174,629 191,321 205,983 223,534 241,791 262,416 260,327

Four basic program models
Four basic models have been identified to refer to a study abroad program’s structure. They consist of (a) Island, (b) Integrated, (c) Hybrid, and (d) Field-study programs.

Island – Students participating in island programs study alongside other American students in a study center. Island programs are typically sponsored U.S. universities and/or third-party providers, who develop a curriculum specifically with American students in mind.
Integrated Students who participate on an integrated program enroll directly in courses alongside local students at a host university. Program sponsors may provide additional services such as assistance with course registration and language tutoring.
Hybrid – Hybrid programs include elements of both island and integrated program. Typically students take a selection of their coursework at a host university and the remainder at a study center. Hybrid programs are common in countries where the primary language of instruction is not English, such as China and Morocco.
Field-based – Field-based study abroad programs for academic credit are structured much more liberally than traditional island, integrated or hybrid programs. Generally these programs involve a thematic focus, field study training and finally an independent study project. SIT Study Abroad programs are for the most part field-based.

Students applying to American universities are usually required to take a standardized test. For undergraduate programs, this is typically the SAT or the ACT (some schools prefer one or the other, but all universities accept both). For graduate (UK: “postgraduate”) programs, the test required depends on the course of study. This is typically the MCAT for medicine, the LSAT for law, the GMAT for business, the DAT for dentistry, the PCAT for pharmacy, and the GRE for most other majors.

International students from countries other than Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia or New Zealand are typically required to prove their English proficiency when they apply for admission. The most widely accepted English test for this purpose in the United States is the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), though many universities would also accept the academic version of the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) in lieu of the TOEFL. This requirement is sometimes waived if you previously obtained a university degree in the United States or one of the other aforementioned English-speaking countries

Funding study abroad
Costs for a study abroad program include, but are not limited to tuition and fees, room and board, medical insurance, passport and visa fees and transportation costs. While U.S. universities vary in terms of policies related to financing study abroad, financial aid for U.S. students who wish to study abroad may include a combination of scholarships, grants from the home university, government student loans, and private student loans.

An amendments made in 1992 to the Higher Education Act of 1965, TITLE VI, SEC. 601-604 in the U.S. ruled that students can receive financial aid for study abroad if they are enrolled in a program that is approved by their home institution and would be eligible to receive government funding without regard to whether the study abroad program is required as a part of the student’s degree.

Federal grants
The Pell Grant – The Pell Grant is a need-based grant. To qualify, you must be a full-time undergraduate student with an Expected Family Contribution (EFC) below the limit determined each year
The Federal Supplemental Education Opportunities Grant – This need-based grant is awarded to those students demonstrating the greatest financial need. Students typically must qualify for the federal Pell Grant to receive an SEOG Grant

Federal loans
Federal Stafford Loan – The Stafford Loan is in the student’s name and is available to all students, regardless of financial need. If the loan is subsidized, the government will pay the interest while the student is in school. If the loan is unsubsidized, there is the choice of capitalizing the interest or of paying the interest quarterly during the in-school period. Payment of the principle itself (for both subsidized and unsubsidized loans) does not begin until six months after graduation, provided the student remains enrolled on at least a half-time (six credits) basis.
Federal Perkins Loan – The Perkins Loan is a low-interest loan (5 percent) awarded to those students demonstrating the greatest financial need.
Parent PLUS Loans for Undergraduate Students – Parents may borrow up to the full cost of a student’s education, less the amount of any other financial aid received. There is a minimal credit check required for the PLUS loan, so a good credit history is required.

Federal scholarships
David L. Boren Undergraduate Scholarships for Study Abroad – The National Security Education Program (NSEP) provides scholarships to undergraduate students who wish to study languages and cultures considered to be important to U.S. national security. Students are not eligible to receive the Boren scholarship if they are studying in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, or the United Kingdom.
Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship – If you receive a federal Pell Grant, you are eligible to apply for a Gilman Scholarship.

Study Abroad Scholarships from third party providers and host institutions are another common source of funding for students.

Student visas
Any courses that contribute credits towards the awarding an academic degree will require you to obtain a student visa in advance regardless of how short your stay in the U.S. may be. (This rule does not apply to citizens of Palau, Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia.)

However, short courses that do not count as academic credits may be undertaken on a tourist visa, or under the visa-waiver program. In large cities, open universities may offer short non-credit courses on all sorts of practical topics, from ballroom dance to buying real estate. They are a good place to learn a new skill and meet people.

In order to apply for a student visa, you will need to present an I-20 form from the institution, pay a SEVIS fee, and demonstrate evidence of sufficient funds to cover your tuition fees and living expenses for the duration of your course. You will also need to demonstrate your proficiency in English.

As of January 2018, the SEVIS fees are:

F or M visa applicants (full payment): $200
J visa applicants (full payment): $180
Special J-visa categories (subsidized payment): $35
Government visitor (no payment): $0

Canadians and Bermudians are exempt from having to obtain a student visa, but are otherwise subject to the same requirements and restrictions as other international students.

Unless you have applied for and received special permission in advance, international students are not allowed to work off campus in the United States.

Costs and financial aid
Colleges are partially funded by tuition (UK: “tuition fees”) charged to the student, which is often quite expensive, very commonly reaching into the tens of thousands of dollars per year. The most selective colleges (and hence, often the most desirable) run up to $40,000-50,000 per year, including both tuition and “room & board” (furnished dorms or apartments on the university’s campus) in that price.

In general, private universities charge the same tuition for both U.S. and international students. Public universities generally offer subsidized tuition only to U.S. citizens or permanent residents who reside in their state, meaning that both international students and students from other U.S. states are usually required to pay the full “out of state” tuition. Most U.S. citizens and some permanent residents receive substantial financial assistance from the federal and state governments in the form of grants and low-interest loans, which are not available to non-citizens.

Often financial aid for foreign students is provided by their home country. They may be eligible for privately-funded scholarships intended to provide educational opportunities for various kinds of students. In addition, the U.S. government also funds the Fulbright Scholarships, which allow international students to study in the U.S., though they would be required to return to their home countries to work immediately on completion of their program.

The more prestigious universities usually provide a comprehensive funding package comprising full tuition remission, health insurance and a living stipend to all PhD students, though the number of international students who are offered admission is usually limited. Some U.S. and major global banks offer loans to foreign students, which usually require a citizen to guarantee that they’ll be repaid. Contact the Financial Aid Office of any college you are interested in attending for more information about the sources of aid available.

Program sponsor
Programs can also be grouped and classified by identifying a program’s sponsor. Sponsors are the institutions and/or circumstances that led to a program’s creation, as well as what the goal of a program is. The main study abroad program sponsors are (a) host university (direct exchange and direct enroll), (b) U.S. college or university (study centers and international branch campuses), and (c) study abroad organizations known as third-party providers.

Host University Sponsor: direct exchange and direct enroll

Many U.S. institutions have long-standing direct exchange partnerships with foreign institutions that allow their students to enroll in classes as a visiting student while still paying standard tuition at their home university. Direct exchanges are facilitated by agreements governing academic credit transfer and financial aid between the home university and host university. While individual agreements may vary, direct exchange typically involves a 1:1 where the number of inbound exchange must be equivalent to the number of outgoing study abroad students. Typically, students enroll in standard courses at the host institution and are fully integrated with host country students and are responsible for their own housing, airport transfer, etc. Programs are administered on-site by the host university, with pre-departure advising and assistance from a U.S. university study abroad office.

Like direct exchange, direct enrollment programs are generally geared toward the more independent student, as participants enroll in courses directly alongside local students. Students are responsible for their housing and coordinating other logistics. Unlike direct exchanges, direct enrollment does not necessarily require an agreement between the U.S. institution and the foreign university. As such, credit transfer is not automatic and participants pay tuition and fees directly to the host university.

Sponsored by U.S. College and Universities: study centers and international branch campuses

Some of the most popular study abroad programs include those sponsored by a student’s home institution, by another U.S. college or university, or by a consortium of U.S. colleges or universities. These programs are designed to allow students to study in a foreign environment while remaining within a U.S. academic framework. Credit transfer is arranged by the sponsoring and programs typically align with traditional U.S. academic calendars. The U.S. sponsor institution will typically assist with housing arrangements, and may arrange cultural activities and excursions for participating students. Study center are known as “island programs” because create separate classes and spaces for U.S. and foreign students.

Participants may take classes at a study center or international branch campus run by the U.S. college or university sponsor. The curriculum of study centers are specifically designed for study abroad students. For example, students at Texas Tech University’s Seville, Spain program study with TTU faculty, take TTU courses with other TTU students and earn TTU credit. International branch campuses, however, are distinct in that U.S. study abroad students enroll in classes alongside full degree-seeking students. As an example, Florida State University Panama Canal Branch offers a broad curriculum and the majority of its students are Panamanian or are from other countries in Latin America, notably Colombia and Costa Rica. Today, U.S. colleges and universities operate at least 80 international branch campuses worldwide.

Sponsored by third-party providers

Third-party providers are private companies and organizations that sponsor study abroad programs. Both for-profit and non-profit third-party providers assist program participants with logistics like course registration and housing arrangements. While models differ, academic and social guidance is generally included throughout the duration of a program, as are built-in excursions and community service opportunities.

Third-party providers of all stripes pursue relationships with U.S. universities in the form of affiliation agreements or membership consortia agreements. There are many third-party providers in operation in the United States.

Working while studying
Unless you have applied for and received special permission in advance, international students are not allowed to work off-campus in the United States.

Foreigners on F-1 student visas are allowed to work for up to 20 hours a week during term time, and full-time during school holidays on-campus in their respective institutions, but are generally banned from working off-campus unless they have applied for and received special permission in advance. Dependents of F-1 student visa holders (i.e. F-2 visa holders) are not allowed to work in the U.S. The Optional Practical Training (OPT) and Curricular Practical Training (CPT) schemes allow F-1 student visa holders to work off-campus after completing a year of study at a U.S. institution, provided their job is related to their major, though the application has to be filed with Immigration and approved before you commence work. The OPT scheme also allows foreigners who graduate from a U.S. institution with a bachelor’s degree or higher to apply to stay on and work in the U.S. for up to 12 months on their student visa, provided their job is related to their major. Graduates with majors in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) may extend their OPT by up to 24 months after the initial 12 months are up for a total of 36 months. The total time spent on OPT before and after graduation may not exceed 12 months (or 36 months for STEM graduates), and having spent 12 months or more on OPT or CPT before graduation will make you ineligible for post-graduation OPT.

It is better to arrange your work and work visa before you enter the United States. Young people who are full-time students of certain nationalities can apply for a J-1 “Exchange Visitor” visa which permits paid work as a nanny or summer work for up to 4 months in virtually any type of job. The United States Department of State has full information on applying for this type of visa including the precise categories that qualify.

College sports in the U.S. tend to get more attention than in other countries, with games between the top colleges often shown on television during prime time slots. Many universities offer athletic scholarships to students, including international students, who are outstanding in a particular college sport, even if their academic record may be less than stellar.

In mid-2007, New York’s attorney general opened an inquiry into the relationships between universities and providers of foreign study. According to Benjamin Lawsky, former deputy counselor in the office of Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo, the inquiry was to focus on whether cash incentives and other perks that foreign-study providers give universities influence their decisions about where students may study. Critics contend that the practices, rarely disclosed and largely unknown, limit study abroad options and drive up the price that is ultimately passed onto students. The investigation follows disclosures in The New York Times that providers of study abroad are offering colleges rebates, free and subsidized travel, unpaid seats on advisory boards, help with back-office services and marketing stipends. In some cases, perks are tied to the number of students universities send to a given provider’s program. When asked, Lawsky said that the inquiry grew out of his office’s inquiries into similar practices in the student loan industry.

As part of the investigation, Cuomo’s office issued subpoenas for five of the major study abroad providers in August 2007. The first batch of providers were the Institute for Study Abroad at Butler University, the American Institute For Foreign Study, the Institute for the International Education of Students; the Center for Education Abroad at Arcadia University, and the Danish Institute for Study Abroad. Six months later, he issued subpoenas or requests for documents top 15 colleges in and out of New York State. In light of the unprecedented attention on the industry, NAFSA: Association of International Educators drafted a report in early 2008 calling on U.S. university study abroad offices to be more open in their decision making and to demonstrate that their policies directly benefit students.

Also in response to Cuomo’s investigation, The Forum on Education Abroad released a code of ethics in March 2008 that sought to be a “compass” for U.S. universities, study abroad providers and foreign host institutions. Unlike the NAFSA report, The Forum document offers a broad set of ethical principles and detailed guidance. It recommends, amongst other things, that U.S. institutions have specific procedures for reporting payments, like honoraria and consulting fees, for work done on behalf of providers; that agreements and criteria for selecting study abroad programs be disclosed fully; and that the goals and parameters for visits by campus officials to overseas program sites be clearly established in advance of the trips. The Forum is a consortium of American and overseas colleges and outside providers founded in 2001 to create standards of good practices for education abroad.