Why Are So Few Male Students Studying Abroad?

More than 300,000 college students went overseas in 2016–17. Just a third of them were men.

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Even as new enrollments of international students at colleges in the United States have declined over the past two years, the number of American students studying abroad continues to grow. Some 332,700 students studied overseas in the 2016–17 academic year, up 17 percent from five years ago and 27 percent from a decade ago.

But one group of students is underrepresented in the surge of undergraduates going overseas: men. In 2016–17, women accounted for more than two-thirds of American students studying abroad, a proportion that has remained constant for more than a decade.

Colleges have long blamed the gender disparity on the simple fact that women outnumber men on campuses and tend to major in disciplines that historically have accounted for a large share of overseas programs, such as the humanities, the social sciences, and foreign languages. Meanwhile, fields dominated by men, mostly STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines, have a reputation for being less hospitable to overseas study because of demanding degree requirements.

But STEM majors now represent the largest group of students abroad, making up a quarter of all undergrads overseas. Business, another major popular with men, comes in a close second, at 21 percent. Both academic fields have surpassed the social sciences, which led the pack until 2012.

And while women account for 56 percent of the 19.3 million undergraduates enrolled at U.S. institutions, up from 42 percent in the 1970s, administrators who run study-abroad programs say the gender gap in overseas study predates the shift in overall enrollment. Part of that is historical. In the early 1900s, women in college went abroad for art and culture before they got married; parents also perceived study abroad as a safe way for their daughters to travel.

Today, even in colleges that enroll a majority of men, those who study abroad are disproportionately women. Take Purdue University: Men account for 57 percent of the student body but only 41 percent of undergraduates who go abroad, according to a university spokesperson. Since 2013, the number of Purdue undergraduates studying overseas annually has doubled, to about 2,600, as part of a university-wide effort to increase global awareness among its students. The percentage of men going abroad, however, has remained the same.

What’s puzzling to campus administrators is that the numbers aren’t budging, even as they pitch study abroad as necessary for future employment to students who, more so than in past years, are worried about their job prospects. “Having a significant experience abroad is critical to understanding the world they’re going to work in after graduation,” says Michael Brzezinski, Purdue’s dean of international programs.

That focus on employability is one reason the composition of majors studying abroad has shifted toward STEM and business—just not the men in those majors. As a result, study-abroad leaders have started to focus on another explanation for why men don’t go abroad: complacency. Simply put, they don’t want to leave their friends and their comfort zone. A study of 2,800 students at two- and four-year colleges found that the more male students interacted with their peers—for example, the more they spent time with a friend or dorm hall mate—the less likely they were to go abroad. But peer interaction did not have such an impact on women, the researchers found.

Samantha Brandauer, who runs Dickinson College’s study-abroad office, told me she has experienced this firsthand. In her past job at Gettysburg College, she teamed up with a colleague to convene student focus groups on why men didn’t go abroad and what the college could do about it. What she discovered was a “bro mentality” among men in college—a culture in which male students don’t want to leave their friends to study abroad and are heavily influenced by their classmates in making choices about what to do in college. “Part of this is a messaging problem, because the way we talk about study abroad as a transformative experience just doesn’t resonate with college-age men,” Brandauer says. “They don’t want to be transformed.”

As at other schools, only about one-third of Dickinson students who study abroad are men, Brandauer told me. When male students do go overseas, she says, they are often encouraged by a trusted coach or mentor on campus, or they study abroad with a group of their friends. “The key is attracting those students who have some inclination and then lowering barriers and creating incentives,” she added.

To persuade men to study abroad, some campuses are making programs more explicitly about employability, appending internships to existing ones and adding options in locations such as China and the Middle East, where students might picture themselves working someday. Building study-abroad programs into the fabric of the undergraduate curriculum helps lower the perceived barriers, says Purdue’s Brzezinski, so that male students don’t view going away as an added burden on top of planning their coursework each semester.

Others schools are opting for a different route: Susquehanna University, a liberal-arts college in Pennsylvania, requires students to “study away” before they graduate. (About 90 percent of the university’s 2,100 undergraduates choose to travel abroad versus study domestically.) Scott Manning, the school’s dean of global programs, says that male students prefer going on short-term tours rather than spending an entire semester in a foreign locale. Nationally, short programs, often led by faculty members, are the way most Americans study abroad now, instead of the traditional semester-long programs.

Manning has led a study trip to New Zealand in two of the past three years during winter break, and both times, men accounted for two-thirds of the students in the group. Winter trips are more popular with men, he says, because they want to save their summer breaks for internships, and short trips tend to emphasize experiential, hands-on learning rather than sitting in a classroom.

Manning has noticed another thing about male students studying abroad: They tend to wait until the last possible moment to fulfill the graduation requirement. “Men are heavily represented on winter trips in their senior year,” he told me. Indeed, men seem to study abroad only if they find the time in college, while many women arrive on campus with a plan to do so. As a result of all this, colleges can make more programs that cater to these patterns, but for now, the outcome is that many men are missing out on what for many is one of college’s most gratifying and memorable experiences—and one that can help them land a job after graduation too.