US university requires quarter of new students to begin abroad

In move that leaves other institutions wary, Northeastern pushing new students to foreign posts

September 18, 2019
Student abroad
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A US university is requiring more than a quarter of its new students to go abroad for their first semester, a strategy which has the stated aim of embracing globalism but which other institutions reject as a risky imposition on inexperienced freshers.

Each autumn Northeastern University welcomes about 2,800 students to its main campus in Boston, and enrols another 1,100 at one of nine partner institutions worldwide.

Last year, Northeastern announced that it would buy the New College of the Humanities, the previously for-profit UK institution established by philosopher A. C. Grayling, as part of its aim to build a “global university system”. 

Northeastern is one of a small but growing number of US universities that accept students on condition that they defer their arrival on campus, as a way of tackling the financial and logistical problems of lower spring semester attendance rates.

Some others offer a study abroad experience as one option for the autumn semester. But Northeastern has revised its programme to the point where spending the start of the first year abroad is not just an option but a condition of acceptance for some students.

Northeastern views its students as more mature than average, said Elizabeth Cheron, the university’s dean of undergraduate admissions. “This is an opportunity to step out of the ordinary and to do something unique with that first semester,” she said.

But others in the sector expressed concern about making spending the first term abroad mandatory, given the stress that teenagers face during the already challenging transition to college.

They included Jessica Frey Nielsen, director of student development programmes at the University of Southern California, which has been admitting students conditional on a spring start date for more than 30 years.

USC admits about 3,000 students each autumn, and offers spring start dates to about 1,300 more, of which about 400 to 500 accept, Ms Frey Nielsen said. And of those several hundred, she said, most choose to spend that first semester at a community college, while about a quarter choose to study abroad.

On the idea of requiring attendance at a foreign institution, Ms Frey Nielsen cautioned that “every student developmentally is at a different stage in their lives”. Study abroad appears especially problematic for students in the sciences, Ms Frey Nielsen said, given their need to quickly begin work in specialised courses.

Many US universities, however, do face the problem of higher demand for seats in classrooms and rooms in dormitories during the autumn than later in the year because of factors that include student attrition, early or late graduation, and study abroad absences for third-year students.

The problem is especially acute at an institution such as Northeastern, given the high price of real estate around its downtown Boston campus, and the university’s century-old cooperative education programme, in which students spend entire semesters away from classes working jobs related to their field of study.

Northeastern chose to make foreign enrolment a mandatory part of the spring admission programme, Ms Cheron said, after seeing that those who chose that option “had the strongest outcomes” among all spring-admit students.

The university’s leadership also felt that a foreign component best fit Northeastern’s “ethos” as a global institution, she added.

In recognition of the limited experience levels of such students, she said, Northeastern chooses the eligible foreign partner institutions, ensures that all courses are English language, and provides additional staff and guidance to assist the students.

“This is a much more supportive study abroad experience than what you would see as that sort of typical junior year study abroad,” Ms Cheron said.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: US institution requires quarter of first-year students to begin abroad

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