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The number of college students in the U.S. electing to study abroad decreased during the 2008-2009 school year, according to a new report from the Institute of International Education.

The nonprofit organization reports that 260,327 students studied abroad for credit during the 2008-2009 academic year, compared to 262,416 the previous year. The data is based on a survey of about 3,000 colleges.

While the numbers represent a modest 0.8% decline, it is the first time in 25 years that the number of students studying abroad has not increased.

“Primarily, it’s an economic issue,” says Peggy Blumenthal, executive vice president of the institute. Blumental explains that many families had to make decisions about whether or not to send their child abroad during the height of the financial crisis and elected not to do so out of concern for their finances.

However, Blumenthal says, it wasn’t just families who were low on funds. Many campuses also had to respond to economic hardships and, as such, cut many short-term, faculty-run study abroad programs they could no longer afford.  Virtually all of the declines in 2008-2009 stemmed from these short-term programs which include summer, January term and any program of 8 weeks or less during the academic year.

Additionally, Blumenthal says that students are less inclined to travel to traditional (and more expensive) study abroad destinations. Four of the five top locations experienced decreases during the 2008-2009 school year.  

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At the top of that list, the United Kingdom hosted 6% fewer students than in the previous year. Decreases were also seen in the host countries that followed with the number of American students declining in Italy (by 11%), Spain (4%) and France (3%). The exception among leading host nations was an increase of 4% in the number of students to China, the fifth leading destination.
The Institute also attributes the decline to socioeconomic conditions not just in the U.S., but in other parts of the world as well. Mexico, for example, experienced a 26% decline in students after the 2009 H1N1 outbreak caused many colleges to pull programs there.

However, Blumenthal believes that the slight decrease in the amount of study abroad participants is a blip, not a trend. A “snapshot” study conducted online in the fall of 2010 indicates that the number of students studying abroad is starting to rebound.

More than half of the campuses (55%) responded that they had seen an increase in the number of their students studying abroad in the 2009-2010 school year compared to the previous year, including at the campuses with the most study abroad students.

Additionally, the 2008-2009 findings illustrate that students are more interested in the less traditional (and less expensive) destinations. Fifteen of the top 25 countries that year were outside of Western Europe and 19 were places where English is not the primary language, the report says.

Double digit increases in students going to those countries in the top 25 include Argentina (up 15 %), South Africa (12%), Chile (28%), the Netherlands (14%), Denmark (21%), Peru (32%) and South Korea (29%).

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