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Are College Study Abroad Programs Safe?

Updated on November 18, 2015

Most Students Return Home Safely

Most college students are mature enough to handle the stresses of living on their own in a foreign country. So study abroad can be a good experience if all goes well.

However, there are currently no federal standards to ensure that the programs incorporate adequate safety protocols.

Study Abroad is Heavily Promoted

American colleges and universities now push study abroad programs as a necessary rite of passage.

The hype is intense, and the experience is marketed as something you "really should do."

Typically, juniors spend a year at a different campus on another continent. Europe and China are two popular destinations.

It seems like a fun adventure, until something goes wrong.

During the last 15 years, an estimated 400 American students have lost their lives during one of these overseas adventures. They have died in tragic hiking accidents and car accidents. Sometimes these young adults have been murdered. One former student, as of this writing, is going on trial for murder.

In one very high-profile case, a Seattle native named Amanda Knox is charged with killing her British roommate while living in Perugia, Italy. She spent four years in an Italian prison, but was then acquitted. However, a higher court has overturned that ruling, and she's being tried once again.

Recently, in response to the many problems, two Minnesota lawmakers have drafted legislation that would ultimately tighten up the reported safety requirements of study abroad programs in their state.

Study Abroad is Increasingly Popular

Now, it's believed about 270,000 American students participate in study abroad programs. This figure is several times what it was just 20 years ago.

When my own daughter was looking at colleges, study abroad was one of the first things we heard about. It was being plugged aggressively, and it was used as a selling point.

We looked at a wide range of schools. Study abroad was a prominent feature, even at one of the lower-tiered state universities we toured. Despite the fact this school served primarily low to moderate-income commuters, they were eager to tell us that it would be possible to spend a year in Europe.

One brochure at a flagship state university, however, caught my attention. Apparently, in response to safety issues, it stressed that all of its students who traveled to China would be closely supervised.


The Financial Incentive to Push the "Study Abroad Experience"

Although the majority of foreign experiences are incident free, there have been hundreds of deaths, in addition to countless robberies, assaults, stabbings and rapes.

The Minnesota-based ClearCause Foundation is an advocacy group that seeks to raise the standards of study abroad programs. Its website points out that study abroad is a multi-billion dollar industry.

There is a financial reason for colleges to push students to leave their home campus. The New York Times reported that one major outfit, the American Institute for Foreign Study, gave the schools a 5 percent cut on all funds collected. College administrators also received free trips to visit the foreign study sites.

The Times article also cited instances of colleges receiving money from outside companies to market their study abroad programs.

Students who study abroad are responsible for tuition, travel and living expenses in the host country. They still pay full tuition and fees to their American college.

The ClearCause Foundation

This organization advocates for the safety of students abroad, and, ultimately, it hopes to have federal safety standards to govern these programs. It also aims to educate students and their families to make the best choices over programs, and to assist if a crisis occurs.

The group also sponsors a Facebook "Memorial Wall" with pictures of students who've either been killed or injured while staying in a foreign country.

ClearCause was founded in the wake of the death of a teenage boy named Tyler Hill who died on a student ambassador trip to Japan.

The group also publicizes various lawsuits filed by parents around the country on behalf of their children who died abroad. One University of Virginia student was killed while snorkeling in the Caribbean. This was part of a Semester at Sea program.


Student Abroad Facts and Figures

  • Approximately 270,000 US college students study abroad each year.
  • This figure has tripled in the last 20 years.
  • Study abroad has mushroomed into a $20 billion a year industry, according to the ClearCause Foundation, a group pushing for federal safety standards.
  • Colleges and universities typically a receive a kickback, or financial incentive for promoting various study abroad programs.
  • College students are recruited to study on a foreign campus for a year.
  • There is subtle and not-so-subtle pressure to study abroad.
  • An estimated 400 American students have lost their lives in foreign countries over the last 15 years.

The Amanda Knox Story

The most famous account of a study abroad gone wrong is that of Amanda Knox. The University of Washington student was spending a year in Perugia, thousands of miles away from her family in Seattle.

A few months into her stay, she was charged with the murder of her roommate, a British student named Meredith Kercher.

Knox was interrogated by Italian police. She eventually spent years in prison before being released. Although later found not responsible, she is now being retried because, unlike the United States, the Italian justice system does not have what we call "double jeopardy," in which someone can only be tried once for a murder.

Lost in the details of Knox's ordeal, which has received a great deal of publicity in both Europe and North America, is the death of a beautiful young woman.

I include Knox's story because I believe every parent contemplating sending their child abroad should first read the book entitled, Murder in Italy, so they can get a sense of the lifestyle in Perugia, a European city that serves as a temporary home to many Italian and foreign students.

How Well Were the Students Supervised?

The book clearly explains that Knox, described as a "spirited" 20 year old, was not staying on a college campus. Rather, she and Kercher, lived in a flat with two older Italian law students.

Four Italian males rented the space below them.Their apartment was in a run-down section of Perugia with a reputation for being drug infested. It was not considered safe to walk through that area at night.

The author went into great detail describing how Perugia, the capital of the Central Italian Umbrian region, attracted college students. More than 40,000 students from all over the world lived there.

The city of 168,000 also drew an eclectic mix of foreigners, drifters and blow ins. There were numerous bars and clubs. It had also earned a reputation as drug center, with transactions taking place on the steps of a church overlooking the historic city.

Although alcohol and street drugs can be found in every college town, Perugia is populated with many students from elsewhere. The author made a convincing case that in this climate, inhibitions broke down. Students experimented in ways they wouldn't have dared to try back home.

A View of Perugia



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Submit a Comment
  • ologsinquito profile imageAUTHOR


    5 years ago from USA

    Hi FlourishAnyway, thank you for the nice feedback and thank you for voting up and pinning.

  • ologsinquito profile imageAUTHOR


    5 years ago from USA

    Hi suzettenaples, I agree with you. College students either need to be with a family or in a campus environment, not off on their own in a foreign country. Students considering an overseas program also need a lot of orientation. They also need more supervision than students staying at home.

  • ologsinquito profile imageAUTHOR


    5 years ago from USA

    Thanks so much Nell. I'm also following the Amanda Knox story closely. It has more twists than those winding alleys in Perugia. My heart goes out to Meredith's family.


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