Effects of Study Abroad

By Downing Thomas

The Erasmus Programme and its newer incarnations (Erasmus Mundus and Erasmus +) are European efforts designed to enhance the internationalization of higher education and, in particular, to increase student mobility in Europe.  The goal of the program has been to boost educational quality across Europe and thereby increase job opportunities for citizens and prosperity across the continent. A 2014 impact study was designed to determine how successful the program has been in achieving those goals.  While the study was obviously focused on the European context, the effects of student mobility it examined might be said to be roughly comparable on this side of the Atlantic.

The Erasmus Impact Study used a variety of approaches, both quantitative and qualitative, with various individuals and groups to try to get at the effects of mobility on people and educational institutions.  The study is drawn from multiple surveys in which over 78,000 individuals participated and tapped 652 employers across 34 countries.  The study therefore provided an opportunity to compare the perceived and real development of skills related to success in employment: skills such as acceptance of unfamiliar cultures and attitudes, openness and adaptability, awareness of one’s own strengths and weaknesses, ability to make decisions, and ability to solve problems.  To supplement the survey, meetings and focus groups were organized in eight countries.  These skills were validated by 92% of the surveyed employers as being important for their workforce.  In 2006, 34% of employers considered experience abroad to be important for employability.  In 2014, that figure nearly doubled, reaching 64%. 

It was striking that mobile students rated higher on the above abilities than non-mobile students, even before going abroad, pointing to a predisposition for openness and adaptability in students who choose to study abroad.  Once they do go abroad, mobile students increased their values on the above skills over non-mobile students by 118%.  Comparing groups before and after their time abroad, the average Erasmus student showed higher values than 70% of all students after his or her experience abroad.  In the qualitative portions of the study, students reported improvement in their ability to work in teams and self-confidence, as well as in language and communication skills, organizational skills, critical thinking, and adaptability.  Even as far as five years after graduation, the unemployment rate of mobile students was 23% lower than for non-mobile students.

Overall, the study shows the remarkable impact of mobility on students, faculty, and institutions of higher education.  And the fact that the surveys used an ex ante and ex post design means that the results are more useful than some previous research.

Given that students who study abroad often learn another language, I thought I would mention a recent article in the Economist which looks at the ROI in language learning, drawing on some recent studies.  Given that it was published in the Economist, it was not surprising that the article focused on dollars, rather than on things we educators might value more, like critical thinking, openness to others, or measures of satisfaction in life.  While one study indicates that an American who learns another language earns a mere 2% more than an American who does not, on average, if you consider compound interest, that 2% would end up at $67,000 over 40 years.  That’s nothing to sneeze at.  The MIT economist who made this calculation found that German had a higher return than Spanish.  While it’s interesting to see such reports, my money is still on openness and critical thinking…