Studying abroad is expensive. That's why I try to help students evaluate whether study abroad locations will bring a return on investment as far as their careers.
Over the past 10 to 20 years, most universities and business colleges have increasingly encouraged students to study abroad and prepare for a globalized work environment. In my college, all business students are required to participate in an international study experience.
I applaud these efforts, and I'm glad more and more American university students are gaining international experiences. Yet, I'm concerned because few students think carefully and strategically about where to study abroad.
When I talk to business students about a study abroad destination, I often ask two questions. First, I ask them where they want to go. Then, I ask them where they are most likely to do business or where they will gain the most professional value. The answers to these two questions vary widely.
For example, just a few weeks ago, I spoke to a group of roughly 150 business students. Students responded to these two questions via polling software. When asked what would be their first choice for a study abroad destination, their top choices were the United Kingdom (19%), Spain (15%), Japan (13%), China (12%), France (11%), and Italy (8%). When asked where they were most likely to do business, they responded with China (66%), Mexico (8%), Japan (6%), India (5%), and South Korea (4%).
My conversations with students resemble the situation in colleges and universities across the country. There is little match between the top study abroad destinations and the top trading partners of the United States. According to the most recent Institute of International Education's Open Doors Report, the top study abroad destinations are the United Kingdom (12%), Italy (11%), Spain (10%), France (6%), and China (5%). By contrast, according to the United States Census Bureau, the top trading partners are Canada (17%), China (14%), Mexico (13%), Japan (5%), and Germany (4%).
Students more often than not choose what sounds fun rather than what may be most professionally valuable or satisfying. It's for this reason that I encourage all students to think carefully and exercise discipline when selecting a study abroad location. I hope they at least consider whether the location will help market themselves to hiring managers and bolster their career success.
Of course, there are many factors to consider when making a study abroad choice. Some of these factors are career related and others are not. But, the odds are that hiring managers will be far more impressed with experience in China than in Italy.