The Forum Issues Letter to the CDC

In recognition of the unparalleled support provided by many organizations committed to ensuring the health and well-being of students during their education abroad programs, The Forum, along with more than 30 co-sponsors, issued the following letter to the CDC in response to their March 1 guidance. Although we are all responding daily to this rapidly evolving crisis, we believe it is important to establish processes by which future CDC guidance can be informed by the industry’s Standards of Good Practice.

March 11, 2020

Robert R. Redfield, MD
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
1600 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA. 30329-4027

Dear Dr. Redfield:

Thank you for your proactive leadership in responding to the COVID-19 virus. As President and CEO of The Forum on Education Abroad, I am writing to tell you more about the work of our organization and to express some concern about the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) recent guidance on education abroad. In the following paragraphs I will explain further.

The Forum on Education Abroad is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, membership association recognized by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission as the Standards Development Organization (SDO) for the field of education abroad. The Forum develops and disseminates comprehensive standards of good practice, resources and training; advocates for education abroad and its value; and engages the field in critical dialogue to benefit students. The Forum’s 800+ institutional members include U.S. colleges and universities, overseas institutions, consortia, agencies, and over 100 program providers. Our members comprise over 90% of students who study abroad, and are committed to The Forum’s Standards of Good Practice for Education Abroad. The Standards support the complex responsibilities inherent in offering education abroad opportunities to students. They act as a means to develop, manage, assess and improve education abroad programming. As a commonly-developed and accepted set of standards, they provide a framework for accountability. In particular, Standard 8: Health, Safety, Security and Risk Management, is one of the best ways to assess where an institution is in managing crisis situations. Standard 8 emphasizes that all decisions should be based on triangulated data and recommendations published by expert organizations around the globe that include the World Health Organization (WHO), the U.S. Department of State, the CDC and others. That information must be considered thoughtfully and decisions must be made that are consistent with the organization’s established emergency action plans.

On March 1, 2020, the CDC issued Guidance for Student Foreign Exchange Travel for Institutions of Higher Education (IHEs) which advises IHEs “to consider postponing or canceling student foreign exchange programs” and “to consider asking students participating in study abroad programs to return to the United States.” It has since been retitled Guidance for Institutions of Higher Education with Students Participating in International Travel or Study Abroad Programs. We believe that the unprecedented statement targeting a single, relatively small population, is inconsistent with the CDC’s Coronavirus Disease 2019 Information for Travel, which recommends that only older adults or those who have chronic medical conditions consider postponing travel to countries with a Level 2 Travel Health Notice and that travelers should “practice usual precautions” when visiting countries with a Level 1 Travel Health Notice. Based on the CDC’s own advice, as well as the science and data reported thus far, it is our opinion that COVID-19 should be taken seriously, but we should also keep in mind the current information from the WHO that shows that 82% of all those infected have only minor symptoms and there has been a 99.8% recovery for college aged students. As potentially comforting as those numbers might make some of us, we remain committed to educating and working with our students on being part of the solution to limit the spread by following WHO and CDC guidance. In fact, the Education Abroad world is uniquely positioned and capable of extending such guidance.

Further, the CDC’s guidance for student exchanges did not consider longstanding practices in education abroad risk management. Unlike typical travelers, students are supported on the ground at their various study sites by professional staff, faculty, and others who work to assure that students are provided information, assistance, guidance, and help when necessary. It is also worth noting that no other industry (i.e. cruise industry) or group of U.S. travelers, tourists, expats, or military personnel and their family members are being asked to “consider” ceasing travel or discontinuing their work around the globe. We collectively ask that the CDC revise its guidance for students to be more consistent with its overall classification system for international travel.

Education abroad enables students to build crucial skills and knowledge, prepare to solve the world’s toughest challenges, and to compete in the 21st century workforce as responsible, engaged citizens. Further, the National Survey of Student Engagement recognizes education abroad as a High-Impact Practice, which represents “enriching educational experiences that can be life-changing” and contributes to student engagement and retention. According to the Institute of International Education’s (IIE) Open Doors 2018 report, over 431,000 U.S. students engaged in education abroad in 2017-18. IIE further reports that 47% of U.S. study abroad students are STEM or Business majors, areas in which it is vitally important for students to remain internationally competitive to ensure our country’s future economic well-being.

Since the mid 1940’s, U.S. colleges and universities have partnered with education abroad provider organizations to achieve their internationalization goals by expanding opportunities for their students to live, study and learn alongside peers from across the country and around the globe. Institutions of Higher Education (IHEs) trust these partners to provide students with high quality academic programs that enable their students to develop an understanding of other cultures, languages, and approaches to global challenges, among other benefits. Many IHEs have students who have directly benefitted from providers’ well trained staff who support students’ physical and mental health and well-being, whether by providing access to the best possible medical care, coordinating international insurance response, and/or supporting students’ recovery.

Education abroad provider organizations are absolutely essential to our nation’s ability to meet the growing curricular and geographical interests of students. Many colleges and universities simply do not have the resources to accommodate the dazzling array of program models, academic disciplines, research projects, and career skills that today’s students expect to develop during their education abroad experience. Further, program providers are uniquely positioned to support the health and safety of students, have a long history of successfully doing so, and will continue to prioritize the welfare of students throughout the current crisis. The Forum continues to recommend that all institutions and organizations involved in education abroad closely monitor the spread of the disease and swiftly make changes as necessary to mitigate the health risks in each location where their students are located. The Forum on Education Abroad would be pleased to collaborate with the CDC on future guidance.


Melissa A. Torres
President & CEO
The Forum on Education Abroad

On behalf of:
Academic Studies Abroad
American Institute for Foreign Study (AIFS)
Alliance for International Exchange
API Abroad
Athena Study Abroad
Autonomous University of Social Movements
Barcelona Study Abroad Experience (SAE)
CAPA: The Global Education Network
Cultural Experiences Abroad (CEA)
CET Academic Programs
Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE)
CIS Abroad
Diversity Abroad
Foundation for International Education (FIE)
Global Academic Ventures (GAV)
Global Experiences
Global Vision International (GVI)
Go Overseas
Intercultural Outreach Initiative (IOI)
International Studies Abroad (ISA)
International Student Exchange Program (ISEP)
Knowledge Exchange Institute (KEI)
SAI Programs
School for International Training
Tennessee Consortium for International Studies (TnCIS)
The Education Abroad Network (TEAN)
University of Southern California, Marshall School of Business
Verto Education
Villanova University
Western Kentucky University