Redefining International Education Through Non-Credit Education Abroad

There is consensus that international experience is an important component of a 21st century education.

The good news: In addition to the increasing number of American students participating in for-credit study abroad, more and more students are also actively pursuing international experiential learning through a variety of non-credit education abroad (NCEA) activities.

The not so good news: Despite NCEA becoming a mainstream option for students to incorporate both an immersive international and practical educational experience into their formal studies, and the importance that accurate and comprehensive NCEA data have in informing higher education institutions’ internationalization missions; NCEA has so far been vastly underreported and not fully understood.

Students are redefining what it means to study abroad. Through IIE’s Open Doors® report, we know that more than 22,000 American students participated in non-credit work, internship, and volunteer abroad (WIVA) activities in 2013/14. However, a new study, The World Is the New Classroom: Non-Credit Education Abroad, produced by the IIE Center for Academic Mobility Research and Impact as part of IIE’s Generation Study Abroad®, shows that WIVA activities represent only a portion of the full spectrum of NCEA that students pursue, including research or field work, academic conferences, medical or religious missions, athletic events, and performing arts.

So one may think: If NCEA is a growing phenomenon that allows students to gain valuable, practical skills in an international environment, and informs the global reach of an institution, then collecting and reporting robust data on these experiences is a given and straightforward step, correct?

That is not the case (yet).

One stark re-occurring theme in the report is that there is no consensus among higher education institutions on a variety of key non-credit education abroad issues. This ultimately affects the quality of information campuses are able to provide on NCEA students and experiences—if any. Findings from the report display U.S. institutions’ different schools of thought on what constitutes NCEA; what types of overseas activities are worth tracking and why; and institutions’ views on their responsibility and capacity to track these students and experiences. To top this, institutions face technical challenges in collecting comprehensive NCEA data, particularly on students who independently arrange their NCEA experiences.

What’s in an (NCEA) name? IIE uses the term “Non-Credit Education Abroad” or “NCEA” to refer to the full range of education abroad activities that are not credit-bearing. However, findings reveal that while there is some shared understanding among U.S. institutions on what comprises an NCEA activity, there is broad variation in what is categorized by campuses under the NCEA umbrella (Figure 1). Some institutions do not have a clear or formal definition of non-credit education abroad activities nor a definitive list of NCEA activity categories. Other campuses explain NCEA as broadly encompassing any educational experience abroad that does not count towards credit for a degree.

In addition, some NCEA activity terms have strong for-credit connotations among education abroad practitioners, creating a major point of dispute on what activity terms can and should be referred to as NCEA. The inclusion of activity terms with the word “study” or “education” under non-credit demographics may be seen by some in the field as confusing or even diminishing the legitimacy of for-credit study abroad programs.

Figure 1. Experiences recognized by U.S. institutions as NCEA, 2014/15
Source: The World is the New Classroom: Non-Credit Education Abroad, IIE

Educational value of NCEA even though not for-credit. Institutions—particularly those that do not currently collect NCEA data—question the educational value of the different types of non-credit education abroad and are concerned about the move to track these experiences. Some institutions reported that NCEA activities are not seen as impactful and cannot be substituted for credit-bearing study abroad.

Some institutions hesitate to recognize non-credit activities abroad based on their concerns that such activities may focus on tourism or extra-curricular pursuits, rather than educational experiences. This view comes from the perception that meaningful learning outcomes from non-credit education abroad experiences are not clearly defined—especially those activities arranged by students such as mission trips, summer or break work or internships, and attending conferences. These institutions believe that the educational quality of for-credit study abroad is standardized through requirements for a degree program, and what, how, and who teaches or leads the experience (Matkin, 2015).

At IIE, we strongly agree with the 73 percent of survey respondents who believe it is necessary to track and collect data on NCEA experiences due to the educational nature of these activities (Figure 2). We need to move away from the “spring-break”-like connotations that the words “non-credit abroad” conjures and start seeing that experiential NCEA opportunities allow for active learning and the application of theory into practice in an international setting (Crossman & Clarke, 2010). There is something to be said about the exciting, experiential-based learning and appeal of international immersion that thousands of American students are actively choosing to participate in despite not receiving academic-credit for their experiences. Oftentimes, NCEA is also the only way that certain student populations can experience international education abroad. For example, this is especially true in the case of student athletes whose demanding training schedule do not allow them enough time to study abroad (Wolverton, 2016). NCEA provides students the opportunity to learn through practical hands-on opportunities and training.

Figure 2. Reasons institutions track NCEA activities, 2014/15
Source: The World Is the New Classroom: Non-Credit Education Abroad, IIE

“Not university sponsored? Not university’s responsibility.” While most institutions agree that it is important to track all NCEA activities coordinated under their auspices, the majority do not have any data on students arranging their own non-credit experiences, highlighting the discrepancy between actual NCEA activity and the students who are counted.

There are two views on whether it’s the institution’s role to know who these NCEA students are, their activities, and where they are going. On one hand institutions want to stay clear of being associated with NCEA activities that are not university funded or sanctioned programs. In addition to discussions of what NCEA activities should be captured, there are three other main reasons for this: 1) institutions do not want to be in a position of being legally liable for students whose activities are not under their control; 2) institutions cannot legally mandate these students report their NCEA activities; and/or 3) institutions do not have the capacity (resources, systems, or staff) to track these students.

On the other hand, some institutions have implemented robust student travel policies that encourage students to voluntarily register their international travel via travel registries. These registrations are invaluable in mitigating risk concerns. Institutions expressed that they simply can’t help students if they do not know where they are.

Mobility data is an essential tool for comprehensive campus internationalization. While IIE understands that there are real challenges to collecting NCEA data, we strongly believe that it is a crucial component of the current education abroad landscape that needs further examining. As the context of education abroad changes, comprehensive and reliable data—both for-credit and non-credit—is crucial for affirming institutional goals of enhancing internalization, and informs whether institutions need to implement new policies, partnerships, or curricula re-organization in order to meet their students’ educational demands.

The World Is the New Classroom: Non-Credit Education Abroad was conducted as part of IIE’s Generation Study Abroad® initiative to serve as a serious conversation starter and a tool for the higher education community to deliberately think and come to a consensus on what constitutes an NCEA activity, the different education abroad classifications, and to take a wider lens to their on-campus NCEA outreach and data collection processes. Our goal is to reach a common standard for fully documenting American students’ global experiences and promoting and supporting alternative NCEA as a complement to traditional credit-earning and classroom-based programs.


Crossman, J., & Clarke, M. (2010). International experience and graduate employability: Stakeholder perceptions on the connection. Higher Education, 59(5), 599–613.

Matkin, G. (Feb 26, 2015). Growing non-credit programming: Central to institutional success. The EvoLLLution. Retrieved from

Wolverton, B. (2016). NCAA considers easing demands on athletes’ time. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 62(18). Retrieved from