Iowa regents drop ball on study abroad recommendations

Board cites 'change in board leadership and priorities'

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Five years ago, planners envisioned more university students studying abroad to better prepare themselves for living in an increasingly interconnected world.

A Board of Regents task force recommended forming more study abroad programs. creating certificates in globalization and — importantly — having Iowa’s public universities collaborate to effectively and efficiently grow the number of students studying overseas.

But in that time, a change in regents leadership has left the recommendations unfilled — and the number of students studying abroad stagnant, even amid staggering enrollment growth on campus.

University of Northern Iowa study abroad participation — according to that institution’s online fact book — has seen a slide from 1,130 in 2011-12 and 1,295 in 2012-13 to 548 in the 2014-15 term.

Paula VanZee, UNI study abroad director, told The Gazette those numbers include international student opportunities that are not for credit. Straight study abroad figures, she said, average around 400 — with numbers dipping slightly from a recent high of 580 in 2013-14 to 373 in 2015-16.

At Iowa State University, study abroad participation had been climbing annually — mirroring spikes in the school’s overall enrollment — until the 2014-15 term when it reached 1,633. Then, in the year that just ended, participation dropped to 1,497.

University of Iowa’s study abroad program had seen slow declines in participation since the 2011-12 academic year — ratcheting down from 1,351 to 1,348 to 1,285 in the 2013-14 term. In 2014-15, participation bumped up again to 1,384, and Assistant Provost Douglas Lee said that’s a good thing for the students served.

“We are in an increasingly global society, and our students are going to live and work in that world,” Lee said, adding, “This is good preparation for that.”

The board’s 2011 task force touted the importance of studying abroad as a way to more-broadly educate graduates and better prepare them to be “effective contributors in the private and public sectors of our globally integrated economic and political environment.”

And, the task force stressed, “Enterprisewide collaboration will foster greater participation.”

The task force set several goals to that end, including increasing the number of “regents’ study abroad programs” — those available to students across the three institutions — to 12 by 2015 and more prominently publicizing them on the university websites.

Today, UI lists just five “regents” programs on its study abroad website. Iowa State and UNI — although they offer the programs — don’t identify them as “regents” offerings online.

The task force also charged the universities with developing by July 2012 undergraduate and graduate certificates in globalization, documenting additional international preparation and experience.

“Templates for regents’ globalization certificates will be developed by May 1, 2011,” according to the task force report.

That never happened. And no such certificates exist.

The task force laid out participation goals specific to “regents study abroad programs” — aiming for a 20 percent increase by 2015. But study abroad officials told The Gazette interest is lacking.

The University of Iowa has seen its participation in regents study abroad programs drop from 60 in the 2011-12 term to 24 in the 2014-15 season. UNI’s VanZee said her institution has sent “a couple of students” on regents programs.

“But we don’t send as many,” she said. “We have more affordable programs.”

About the lack of advertising for the regents-programming on the UNI website, VanZee said, students don’t typically care how the programs are administered.

“Students don’t care if it’s a regents program or exchange program,” she said. “They are more interested in the cost. So, for our student population, we don’t advertise it. It doesn’t mean much for them.”

Josh Lehman, spokesman for the Board of Regents, said the lack of follow-through on the task force recommendations was the result of a “change in board leadership and priorities” in 2011, when then-regents Jack Evans and David Miles resigned from the board.

That, Lehman said, “resulted in reallocation of resources, including staff time.”

“There were no direct costs associated with the task force.”

Although the group’s 2011 report stated it would schedule regular meetings during the year, Lehman said, “By its nature, the task force was meant to be temporary.”

Evans, former regents president who chaired the task force, said the group and the university provosts spent some energy assessing the efficiency opportunities, preparing the 2011 report, and pursuing opportunities for implementation.

“The goal of the task force was just to be more efficient and to use the existing dollars we have as best we can,” he said.

Evans agreed with Lehman, saying many of the initiatives fell flat due to the change in leadership.

“The board opted to go in a different direction,” he said.

But, he said, some of the broader goals — although not initially pursued — have survived through the regents’ larger vision. Lehman said discussion around the task force suggestions “led to an exchange of ideas in ways our universities can better collaborate.”

“Even though some goals associated with this task force may not have been achieved at that time, the overall goal of collaboration and efficiency between the universities has continued since then,” Lehman said.

He pointed to a 2011 recommendation to allow students to take courses and enroll in programs across the regent universities. That didn’t prompt immediate action or change, but the idea again came up in the board’s more recent efficiency review -- which has cost nearly $6 million in consultant fees and is expected to save up to $12.2 million by the end of the next budget year.

Based on recommendations in the new review, the universities this fall are debuting a new course-sharing pilot project enabling students from one institution to take courses from another. And they could take on study abroad collaboration in the future, officials said.

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