Study Abroad and Student Success

By Downing Thomas, Dean of International Programs

Thinking about the majority of students who stay on campus during their years at the University, it is intriguing to consider what leads those nearly 20% of UI undergraduates who study abroad to make that decision and to stick to it.  Our own Mark Salisbury (Ph.D. candidate in the College of Education and a former graduate assistant in International Programs) has been exploring the factors that shape intent to study abroad for some time. His research was recently featured in the Chronicle of Higher Education (“Men and Women Differ in How They Decide to Study Abroad, Study Finds”).  One of the findings of Mark’s research is that women are much more likely to study abroad than men because of gender differences in how students respond to interactions with their peers and to the academic environment. Other findings suggest that the accumulation of cultural capital (i.e., a knowledge of society and people that helps you get ahead in life) before arriving at college and during the freshman year is key to shaping that intent (as it is to college success as well no doubt).

It is common around International Programs to hear people talk about how study abroad can change your life; and those of us who have done so  persuaded that this is the case.  There is currently a great deal of interest among academic leaders on our campus and around the nation in what are referred to as “high-impact activities”—that is, educational practices that are strongly connected with student success.  An example would be our living-learning communities, where programs and activities in the residence halls bring together students with common interests.  Several of us are exploring the correlation between study abroad and student success (as defined by persistence and on-time graduation).  Taking an initial look at the statistics, undergraduates at the University of Iowa who study abroad are 44% more likely to graduate in four years than students who do not.

That’s a striking number!  But we have to be careful not to confuse correlation with cause.  Moreover, we might wonder if the characteristics that lead students to study abroad would be the same ones that push them to persist and graduate on time.  In other words, isn’t this an internal cause rather than an external one?

In any event, Mark’s intriguing research pushes us to consider in greater depth how we might use data to explore the effect that studying abroad has on student success. Food for thought!

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