Study Abroad in Latin America: 2002-2011

Megan Lee

Megan is an international educator, traveler, and writer. She has led study abroad programs in China and the South Pacific.

Latin America is the destination of choice for 15% of all US students abroad, a proportion that has been flat for the decade. The region grew 70% from 2002 to 2011, the same rate as the average for the world. True to global trends, growth in Latin America came from smaller, less traditionally popular destinations.

What’s been happening:
  • Significant gains in enrollment in Costa Rica, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, and Peru have all but been offset by losses in Cuba (2005) and Mexico (2009), causing a growth plateau in the region beginning in 2008.
  • In 2002, more than a third of all US students going to Latin America went to Mexico. In 2011, that number had fallen to just one in ten. Years of ongoing violence and military action in the drug war are likely the cause.
  • Cuba experienced a 92% drop in US student visitors from 2004 to 2005. At the time, it was the third most visited Latin American country. Additional US sanctions passed in 2004 restricted Cuban American family visits, which may have contributed to the 2005 decrease.
Brent Hunter, Program Director at SOL Education Abroad

“Latin America will continue to grow as a study abroad destination for Americans. As Americans realize the growing importance of Spanish in the US, they will also realize the importance of learning Spanish from Latin American countries. Pragmatically, this is the Spanish that will be most useful to use in the workplace or on a daily basis. I think also that rising fuel costs will make students realize how much more affordable, overall, it is to fly to closer Latin American countries. Also, the dollar goes so much farther!

For Costa Rica, in particular, I think growth came from students and parents seeing it as a safer country than other Latin American locations. Costa Rica has definitely benefited from the fallout with safety in Mexico. Furthermore, Heredia has had more growth than San José (the capital) because its so much safer. I also think with people being more concerned about safety in the world they like the fact that Latin America is closer to home. The trends are, of course, different in each country and city.

With Buenos Aires being such a fabulous, European-influenced country it was only a matter of time until it began to get more popular. I think as more students return home with great experiences you'll see more students choosing Argentina over studying abroad in Europe, especially considering the continent-wide economic instability there. Plus, Students love the friendly porteños!”

Gerardo Avalos, Program Director at The School for Field Studies

Study abroad programs are getting more diversified in terms of options, costs, and overall emphasis. It is a moving target, which poses major challenges for home universities, service providers as well as students, who constantly need to monitor the available market in order to find programs that match their needs. In my opinion, home universities are switching more to study abroad providers, which have well-established programs, are strong on safety, and facilitate a rich learning experience by combining students from a variety of US universities.

These service providers usually have a strong connection with local communities and have the commitment to leave a positive impact on host countries, making the experience more real, relevant and meaningful for the students. In addition, running a study abroad program, with all the factors that it entails (transportation, food, lodging, logistics, faculty) is complex and expensive for home universities, which usually have to negotiate with their own faculty and convince them to live abroad for a while, usually at rental sites. There is clear trend leaning more towards strong dependence on service providers to run effective, state of the art study abroad programs.

The US economy suffered a major crisis that peaked about 3-4 years ago. This was felt in the academic world as budget reductions for research, cut backs on new faculty hiring, and reduction on self-ran study abroad programs (i.e., home universities switching to service providers). The economy is on the rise nowadays, but still is not in really good shape. Study abroad is among the first fields to show the aftershocks of any fluctuation in the economy. The trend that I have seen in the last few years is that students who used to go to more expensive programs in Europe and Asia actually switched to more affordable programs in Latin America, which are closer to the US (facilitating also a visit by parents, friends and family).

Jose B. Alvarez, Associate VP for Program Management and Development at CEA

"In recent years, there has been an exponential rise of the language proficiency that students are attaining before entering college. This trend allows for an increase in the number of students taking intermediate and advanced language courses in the freshman and sophomore years, oftentimes deciding early on to pursue double majors and minors in Spanish. The correlation between this rise and students going abroad in Spanish speaking countries is apparent. It is simply cheaper to study in Central and South America than it is in Spain. The increased interest in the region’s politics, economy, business practices and even environmental studies has also placed the area in a privileged position.

On the flip side, another factor contributing to increased interest in the area is that in many instances, students do not have to be fluent in the local language. Students can still participate in programs where the language of instruction is English. This, for example, is very common in science programs and in Brazil.

The open Doors Data clearly shows that a comparison of the two latest surveys conducted (2009/10 and 2010/11) there has been a decrease of 41.8% in the number of students participating in study abroad opportunities in Mexico, which is obviously due to safety concerns.

I would argue that for the numbers of students going abroad to keep increasing there must be the complicity of the faculty. Administrators, study abroad offices and staff, as well as advisors, have done a pretty good job highlighting the opportunities available for students. It is essential that more faculty understand the value and widely support the academic experiences of students by promoting it in their courses and facilitating the credit transfer. Study abroad must be an essential component of any college student curricula."

Source: Institute of International Education. (2012). "Profile of U.S. Study Abroad Students, 2000/01-2010/11." Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange. Retrieved from

Report Methodology

Analysis and graphics for this report were created by Leaf and Square Consulting, a data-consulting firm helping companies get the most out of their data through advanced analytics and visualization. Learn more at

Data for this report came from the 2012 Institute of International Education Open Doors Report on International Education Exchange and the National Center for Education Statistics.

We tried to stay as true to the IIE report methodology as possible, but in some instances it was necessary to modify our approach or aggregate data in a different way. A few notes:

  • "Years" in our report refer to the academic year ending.
  • In general, for countries that changed names or political boundaries during the time period covered in the report, data from years prior to the changes were updated to match the most recent assignment from IIE for consistency.
  • Exceptions: Egypt was reassigned from Africa to the Middle East. Turkey is assigned to the Middle East for the global report and shown regionally in both the Europe and Middle East reports.
  • Students traveling to multiple destinations, a significant group, were excluded from our report due to a lack of detailed destination information.
  • Students classified as "Unspecified" to a particular region in the IIE report were spread proportionally to the countries in that region.
  • Data and reports may be downloaded as a Tableau Packaged Workbook by following the link underneath the charts. Further inquiries about the data or methodologies may be directed to [email protected]