Illustration by Alex Nabaum
THE NUMBER OF U.S. college students enrolled in international exchanges continues to grow. The latest report from the Institute of International Education shows that 325,339 U.S. college students studied overseas during the 2015–2016 academic year. That’s a 3.8 percent increase from the previous year, and it’s close to three times the number of students who traveled two decades ago. Business majors account for 20.9 percent of participants.
But as their popularity grows, so do the costs related to study abroad experiences, which require schools and students to shoulder expenses related to everything from airfare and housing to staff support. But how big is the return on these investments, especially when similar multicultural experiences, such as instruction in additional languages and courses that teach multicultural skills, can be offered less expensively on a school’s home campus?
Otmar Varela, associate professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, recently conducted a meta-analysis of the last 20 years of research about study abroad experiences, in an attempt to quantify their ROI. After standardizing study outcomes and accounting for each study’s sample size, Varela finds that studying abroad outperforms any form of at-home instruction in three areas of learning: cognitive (second language acquisition), attitudinal (intercultural mindedness), and behavioral (intercultural adaptation).
However, these outcomes do not occur automatically, says Varela. In fact, nearly 50 percent of primary studies included in his analysis show questionable returns. “It is not just international exposure,” Varela finds. “It is about the quality of such exposure.”
Varela focused on learning outcomes related to three features of study abroad opportunities:
Level of immersion. Varela compares study abroad experiences that he classifies as “full immersion,” in which students have experiences such as community service projects and internships, to those he classifies as “academic exchanges,” in which students’ only obligation is to attend courses. In academic exchanges, students tend to enroll in similar courses and stay together in their dorms and through their daily routines, which limits the meaningful connections they might make with locals in host countries. However, in situations that demand full immersion, Varela finds that student learning approximately doubles.
“Learning abroad is primarily socially driven,” he explains. “Tight connections with locals push students out of their comfort zones. When placed in families, businesses, or communities, students strive to fit into local social units. They must reevaluate their habits, expressions, and beliefs, while carefully observing how locals behave. Such reexamination is powerful for learning, and it does not occur naturally when students remain with their native co-travelers.”
Length of stay. Because students are facing growing demands on their time and finances, many schools are shortening study abroad experiences. The study finds that shorter stays—eight weeks is the most frequently chosen length of study abroad programs—do not offer large benefits to cognitive learning. Not surprisingly, the longer students stay in a different culture, the better their language acquisition. However, shorter programs do improve students’ attitudinal and behavioral learning just as much as longer stays, such as those that last a full semester.
Choice of destination. What Varela did find surprising is that, while study abroad benefits student learning, the actual destination might not matter as much as some might think. The study does not support the idea that the greater the cultural gap between students’ native and host countries, the more they will learn. This study suggests that learning outcomes are comparable whether the host country exposes students to very large or relatively small cultural differences.
Varela offers two possible explanations to this counterintuitive result. First, the studies he examined did not specify the cultural backgrounds of participants, which would not take into account that a Hispanic student attending school in the U.S. might experience a smaller cultural impact when visiting Costa Rica than his classmates. Second, students’ discomfort when exposed to large cultural gaps could prevent them from seeing the full benefits of immersion.
One last finding: When Varela clustered studies that only considered business students, he discovered that those students saw even greater benefits studying abroad than the general student population. This result, he concludes, highlights “the palpable benefits” of study abroad for business education.
“Learning Outcomes of Study-Abroad Programs: A Meta-Analysis” appears in the December 2017 issue of Academy of Management Learning and Education.