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Paper Co-authored by Belk Center Postdoctoral Scholar Melissa Whatley Explores Inclusivity in Study Abroad Opportunities at Community Colleges

Belk Center posdoctoral scholar Melissa Whatley

Community colleges traditionally have a mission of open access, but how well does that mission extend to their study abroad opportunities? Melissa Whatley, Ph.D., a postdoctoral scholar at the NC State College of Education’s Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research*, has co-authored a paper exploring this question.

The paper, entitled “Understanding Inclusion in Community College Education Abroad: An Investigation of Policies and Practices,” examines the extent to which community colleges across the United States implement policies and practices that foster inclusion in study abroad opportunities for students.

The findings, which draw from quantitative and qualitative data from 25 leaders in community college education abroad across 24 institutions or districts nationwide, demonstrate the ways in which community college leaders struggle to balance an open access mission with the need to set basic criteria for participation in study abroad opportunities.

“My co-author and I went into this study expecting to find a preponderance of inclusive policies, which would be in line with the open access mission of the community college as an institution,” Whatley said. “What we actually ended up finding was that there were elements of inclusive policies and practices as well as elements of exclusive policies and practices. It was almost a balance of the two.”

Whatley’s research shows that many community colleges facilitated inclusion in study abroad by welcoming all students, as well as community members who were not enrolled, to participate and by offering scholarships and grants to fund participation. Additionally, many colleges offered study abroad courses year round, providing scheduling flexibility for interested students.

Several community colleges, however, lack specific inclusion statements for their study abroad courses.

A minimum GPA requirement set by many institutions for participation in study abroad was also found to be one of the most common exclusionary factors reported by community colleges sampled in the study.

This is an issue, Whatley said, as literature surrounding international education at both two-year and four-year institutions suggests that GPA is not a good indicator of whether or not a student will be successful in study abroad courses.

“These requirements exclude a portion of the student population for no valid reason and I would argue that these are the students who probably stand to benefit the most from a study abroad experience,” Whatley said.

Whatley said her research has shown that international education, including study abroad, is important for helping students develop intercultural competency, global perspective and the ability to work with people from different backgrounds.

For students who may only be able to experience an international trip through an affordable study abroad course at a community college, exclusionary practices could deny them an opportunity to develop valuable workforce skills, Whatley said.

“If we’re talking about workforce development, the ability to engage with people who are not from this country is a really important skill to develop. Even if a community college student is going to finish their degree, stay in the local community and continue working there, they’re going to interact with people who are not from here in their workplace,” she said.

Whatley’s article ends with a call to action for community college leaders, noting that if they are able to build on some of the inclusive policies already in place at many institutions, they could create their own distinct brand of international education. In addition, she believes inclusive study abroad programs at community colleges could even serve as a model for more inclusive international education opportunities at four-year institutions.

“International education at four-year universitites emerged as a very exclusive thing, but that is not the case at community colleges. I think that there’s really an opportunity there to build and expand and maybe show four-year institutions how to be more inclusive in education abroad,” she said.

Three Takeaways for Community College Leaders from Whatley’s Paper:

  • Re-focus on where and when study abroad admission policies help or hinder student learning: “Regarding GPA requirements specifically, leaders should consider that both community college and university literature agree that low GPA students perform satisfactory abroad and that some of these students will have greater than average academic gains post-study abroad.”
  • Refocus on program design in terms of when programs are offered and in what subjects: “Sufficient data indicate that students want to and can study abroad during the entire academic year and that there is no basis for choosing one term over another. Similarly, community college leaders should consider program designs that are multi-curricular and do not factor one discipline or curricular track over another.”
  • Consider how programs and policies can ensure that study abroad students are representative of their student population: “Change in this area begins with reconsideration of why community colleges seldom collect data on the demographics of study abroad students. New means of data collection for the purpose of informing open access would allow community college leaders to reach a better understanding of where gaps in participation reside.”


*In planning