Expanding Education Abroad Capacity Through Partnerships 

Innovation And Entrepreneurship In Education Abroad Operational Management

As funding allocated in support of higher education in the U.S. has gradually declined in some regions or has remained stagnant in others, there is no doubt that international educators across the country are facing increasing challenges with securing adequate resources. Education abroad directors are assertively benchmarking funding practices and pursuing new approaches to sustain and/or enhance education abroad operations. This four-part series will appeal to those education abroad professionals who are eager to explore entrepreneurial strategies and savvy approaches to maximizing education abroad operational funding.  

 By Dr. Anthony C. Ogden, ISA Consultant

“Work smarter, not harder,” is a phrase many of us have heard throughout our lives, suggesting that the employment of more effective techniques or strategies will lead to greater success and productivity. Working smarter essentially means identifying our strengths and weaknesses and leveraging networks and partnerships to enhance our capacity and efficiency. At times, education abroad professionals bemoan their ability to get things done, frequently citing insufficient staffing, inadequate resources, and that expectations exceed capacity.  So, what does it mean then, for education abroad professionals to work smarter, not harder?

The reality is that we all have plenty to do, and most of us have grand designs for what we’d like to achieve at our institutions. Many education abroad offices are funded through annual allocations, provided centrally, or through tuition and fee structures. Yet, irrespective of the funding model, most of us readily claim that insufficient funding and resources keep us from pursuing new opportunities. Rather than passively lamenting this reality, some offices are proactively pursuing revenue generating activities. For example, fundraising, alumni outreach, and donor stewardship are perhaps the most common approaches, but such activity seldom generates operational revenue. External grant funding can also be leveraged effectively to launch new initiatives, but external agencies rarely provide funding for staffing and personnel needs.  Although such strategies have certain advantages, particularly with regard to student programming, they seldom generate unrestricted revenue to support operational expenses.

In order to reach the level of desired operational, programmatic and financial stability, it is important for some education abroad offices to consider how to extend their capacity by establishing and leveraging networks and partnerships.  Rather than focus solely on direct revenue generating activities, as so many of us increasingly do, it is similarly important to focus on capacity building though networks and partnerships. What follows is a brief case study of when, earlier in my career, I found myself challenged to explore how to build my office’s capacity.

Some years ago, I served as the Executive Director for Education Abroad and Exchanges at the University of Kentucky (UK). Like so many other directors around the country at the time, I found myself pressured to increase overall enrollment and contribute to the institution’s robust comprehensive internationalization agenda. As a primarily self-sustaining office funded through tuition and fees tied to enrollment, it was initially very difficult to calibrate the capacity and resources of our office with the rate of growth and expansion we were expected to achieve. Recognizing our capacity limitations, we chose to work smarter by leveraging new partnerships to realize our goals.  The following are three brief examples of how we expanded our capacity through networking and partnerships.

Increase your enrollment!

Study abroad “providers” have been working alongside universities and colleges since the beginning of the 20th century (Holloway et al, 2018). These organizations initially emerged as helpful collaborators in developing and facilitating education abroad programs. Today, they offer a wide range of specialized resources and services that contribute greatly to advancing education abroad programming and practice.  Providers work in tandem with U.S. universities and colleges on initiatives that enhance portfolio diversification, advance new innovations in program development and design, promote strategies for enrollment management and student logistics, and mitigate health and safety risk factors, to name a few.

Not surprisingly, as pressures for expanded education abroad programming intensified at UK, our office naturally turned to our affiliated providers, aka “partners,” for support. To significantly increase enrollment, without further expanding staffing and resources, we needed our partners. We recognized early on that workload varies by program type, with faculty-directed and exchanges requiring additional staff time, and thus, we needed to maintain an optimal enrollment balance of 30-40% on partner programs. To help achieve this, we initiated a national RFP (Request for Proposal) to invite a provider to establish a permanent presence within our office. The goal was not to generate revenue or defer responsibilities, but rather to expand our capacity to increase overall participation.

After a comprehensive review process, led by our faculty and senior leaders, ISA was selected.  The expanded partnership with ISA allowed the office to further its strategic objectives, maximize student and faculty support, and raise awareness about the value of education abroad.  Over time, the partnership strengthened our ability to develop faculty-directed, customized programming and manage a robust team of peer advisors. The perpetual growth of enrollment even led to the creation of new scholarships and numerous sponsored initiatives.

Balance student exchanges!

It seems that many institutions these days have the proverbial filing cabinet overflowing with memoranda of understanding that are either long forgotten, or outdated, and institutional exchange agreements that are woefully out-of-balance. UK was certainly no different, but we challenged ourselves to revitalize and balance our agreements. It was time to think differently.

At UK, our biggest challenge was not about attracting enough students to our outbound exchange programs, but with encouraging equal numbers of international students to choose the University of Kentucky out of the many possibilities available to them. As a native Kentuckian, I am aware that international students know little about Kentucky, and what they do know usually is laden with hillbilly stereotypes. The long and rich history of thoroughbred racing in the state however is internationally well-respected and Lexington is regarded as the “Horse Capital of the World.” Our intent was to leverage this resource as a means through which to balance our exchanges.

We turned to the Lexington’s Sister Cities Commission for their support. By utilizing their extensive community network, we were able to secure internships at local horse farms for our international exchange students.  Through this partnership, exchange students from certain partner institutions were able to choose between studying abroad, wherein they would take regular university courses, and interning at one of the many horse farms in Lexington.  Coordinated through a revenue sharing partnership with Sister Cities, our exchanges were strengthened beyond anything that we could have done on our own.

 Expand partnerships in China!

Our charge from the provost was clear:  we were to build a stronger foundation at UK on which to increase the educational mobility of students to China.  At the time, UK lacked a clear China strategy and very few colleges or departments endorsed programming in China. So, with the intention of raising awareness among the faculty of the potential for education abroad programming in China, we approached our campus-based Confucius Institute as a potential partner (Ogden & Maske, 2018).

Our plan focused on coordinating a two-week site visit to China in order to offer faculty members and senior leaders the opportunity to learn first-hand about Chinese higher education and to explore the potential for education abroad programming.  There was simply no way that our office could do this alone and there was little funding available.  With the support of the Confucius Institute, however, we received the approval and financial backing of the Office of Chinese Language Council International (commonly referred to as “Hanban”) to facilitate the visit. In total, 20 participants were selected, representing most UK colleges.

Prior to departure, participants attended orientation and planning meetings, and a series of workshops, which provided brief introductions to education abroad, Chinese culture, language and society, and higher education in China. Once in China, participants attended various lectures, visited a diverse range of established and emerging education abroad programs, and participated in cultural activities in Beijing, Tianjin, and Shanghai. Upon return, participants attended a series of debriefings to discuss the visit and develop college-specific action plans.

By all accounts, the site visit was successful. Participants expressed that they learned much about Chinese higher education and were motivated to support education abroad programming in China. Because the partnership with the Confucius Institute was such a success, Hanban invited UK to make this an annual activity.  More importantly, the Confucius Institute and our office embarked on several new initiatives, including the creation of a grant program to fund the development and implementation of new education abroad programming in China.

What is common among these three examples was our intention to leverage external networks and partnerships to enhance our capacity.  Our goal was not to directly raise revenue for our operations, but rather to pursue mutually reinforcing partnerships in response to real challenges that alone, we could not have managed. We pursued partnerships with providers, community-based organizations and other offices on campus, all of which had a compelling interest to work with us.  While seeking revenue generating initiatives is no doubt important, we found that at least in these examples, we could reach our goals faster by working smarter, not harder.


In July, ISA will be hosting ThinkDen 2018, a unique professional development workshop on the campus of the University of Colorado at Boulder.  Modeled as a think tank, ThinkDen will bring together a number of senior education abroad professionals for an interactive forum at which to critique common operational funding models, explore new and alternative revenue streams, and consider new directions in external collaboration and partnership. ISA will subsequently produce a special report as a contribution to the profession, featuring content from ThinkDen 2018. For more information, please click here.


Holloway, K., Chieffo, L., Kurtzman, R. & Ogden, A. (Forthcoming, 2018).  From transactional to relational: Realigning partnerships between higher education institutions and international education organizations

In Brewer, E. & Ogden, A. (Eds.) Critical perspectives on integrating education abroad into undergraduate education.  Stylus Publishing, LLC, Sterling, VA.

Ogden, A. & Maske, H. (2018).  Confucius Institutes: A faculty development case model. In C. Johnston and L. Ji (Eds). The rise of U.S.-China international cooperation in higher education: Views from the field. Sense Publishers.

Author: International Studies Abroad (ISA)

Since 1987, International Studies Abroad (ISA) has provided college students in the United States and Canada the opportunity to explore the world. ISA offers a wide variety of study abroad programs at accredited schools and universities in 73 program locations throughout the world.

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