The New Way to Study Abroad

American students abroad are hardly rare: a report by the American Council on Education found that the number of U.S. institutions offering overseas opportunities rose from 65 percent in 2001 to 91 percent in 2006. Most of these programs range from a single week to several months. But a new internationalism is spreading across American campuses, with an increasing number of colleges now offering their students degrees in conjunction with a partner institution in another country. In some cases, students get two separate (dual) degrees; less frequently they get a single shared (joint) degree from both schools. But whatever the definition, it is clear that many educators and administrators see these programs as the new shape of higher education.

Students like them, too. Emily Burchfield, a 21-year-old Clemson University senior, will have spent almost half her undergraduate years in Europe—and eventually will earn two separate degrees in economics from two universities: Clemson in South Carolina and Belgium's prestigious Université Catholique de Louvain. Burchfield, who loves studying in Europe, finds herself bursting into joyful laughter as she bikes around the Dutch city of Maastricht or prepares meals in her communal dorm kitchen. "On my corridor alone there are students from Brazil, France, Hong Kong, Turkey, Italy, and Japan," she says. "We all come from such different places and cultures, but we share powerful experiences here. Living with people from all over the world teaches you tolerance and understanding—it's a powerful tool for peace."

"The popularity [of these programs] really surprised us," says Frank Frankfort, coordinator of the European Union–United States Atlantis Program. The three-year-old Atlantis program has provided a significant portion of the seed money for projects like Clemson's. In a rare collaborative funding venture between the EU and a U.S. government department, both sides have allocated about $4.5 million each in grants. American participants pay their school fees at home and Washington awards travel stipends of about $5,000 a semester to U.S. citizens or permanent residents. European students who come to the U.S. get similar grants from the EU.

Atlantis is currently funding up to 18 international projects and is considering about 75 funding requests for 2009-10; many other universities have launched programs with other funding sources. One of Atlantis's recent grant recipients: Bentley University's international bachelor's in information management (I.B.I.M.) degree. Undergrads accepted into the program spend a total of four terms (two academic years) at the Waltham, Mass., business school; three terms at the University of Tilburg in the Netherlands; and a term at Spain's Deusto University. They will graduate with a Bachelor of Science in management from Bentley and a Bachelor of Science in information systems from Tilburg. "We started this because we feel that students need to know and understand business around the world," says Mary Ann Robbert, an associate professor at Bentley and a grant writer for the program. "It really puts a stamp on them when they apply for different positions—it shows they can function anywhere."

Students enrolled in the program share Robbert's hope that their degree mix will open new career opportunities. Sophomores Lisa Luk and Wilder Baird, both 19, told NEWSWEEK shortly before leaving for their first term at Tilburg that they were attracted by the idea of cultural immersion as well as the opportunity to put something different on their résumés. Luk looks forward to the academic challenges; Baird hopes to put himself on track for an M.B.A. and a job across the Atlantic. "College has been so much better than I expected," says Baird. "I'm hoping Europe will be the same."

Classes at Tilburg will be taught in English, but the Bentley cohort is still expected to take a course in Dutch and to have some Spanish proficiency for their Deusto stint. Indeed, many—but not all—double-degree programs are taught in English. Other popular languages are French or German. Those in the Clemson program, for example, are taught in French at Louvain and are also expected to take a Dutch course in Maastricht. "We want them to be cultural participants, not cultural observers," says Mark McKnew, a management professor at Clemson's business college. For the Clemson students, that opportunity is one of the best parts of the program. "I haven't really had any problems with the language requirements," Kelley Jonkoff, 22, told NEWSWEEK in an e-mail. "It takes me longer to read my texts in French, [and] there are moments when I'm not as articulate as I would like to be when writing exams in French, but overall everything is more than manageable." And, yes, she loves the fact that being in Europe allows her to travel to different countries on weekends.

Undergrads who opt for a double degree can expect to work harder and face a more rigid curriculum than their single-degree counterparts. For the colleges, bureaucracy and quality control can be a problem, as each institution has to agree on standards, selectivity, continuity, and course structure. Jan Helge Bohn, an associate professor in mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech, for example, recalls that his university had to get 10 different academic departments to sign off on a partnership program with the Darmstadt University of Technology in Germany.

Peggy Blumenthal, executive vice president for the New York–based Institute of International Education (IIE), notes that U.S. students are less interested in spending long periods abroad than their international counterparts are in coming to the U.S. Case in point: the State University of New York's (SUNY) partnership with nine Turkish universities in a dual diploma program. The SUNY-Turkey program has grown swiftly since its launch in 2000; some 1,800 students are now enrolled, and almost 240 graduated in 2009. All the traffic, though, is one way—Turkish students have come to New York, but no American students have gone to Turkey so far. Part of the reason for that imbalance may have been fueled by American fears of studying in a Muslim country after the attacks of September 11 and the start of the Iraq War; educators are now focused on equalizing the flow.

For students who want more latitude than the double-degree programs allow, other opportunities are expanding, too. "[By] the mid–21st century, students will be spending a lot more [time] abroad," says Sally Blount, dean of the undergraduate college at New York University's Stern School of Business. Blount has initiated two new degree options for Stern students since 2008: a world-studies track and a B.S. in business and political economy that takes students on extended stays in Europe, Asia, and Latin America. Other universities, buoyed by the interest and funding available for dual degrees, are also trying to develop additional international exchange programs. "Global," says Blount, "will be the model for undergraduate education." For early adopters like Burchfield, Baird, Luk, and Jonkoff, that can only be welcome news.

Join the Discussion