Study Abroad May Not Be Quickest Route to Cross-Cultural Understanding

December 16, 2011

A new study has called into question whether study abroad, given its price tag, is the best way to increase students' understanding of and comfort with other cultures.

Overseas study, the report concludes, brings students into greater contact with people from diverse backgrounds. But it has little impact on students' relativistic appreciation of or comfort with cultural differences, two other key measures of intercultural competency.

In fact, some activities that don't require a passport, such as integrative learning (the ability to integrate knowledge gained in one situation in new contexts) or cross-cultural experiences on campus, can have a greater impact on multiple measures of intercultural competency, said one of the report's authors, Mark H. Salisbury, director of institutional research at Augustana College, in Illinois.

"Given how much study abroad costs, are there other experiences that don't cost as much money for students and institutions that have just as great educational effects?" Mr. Salisbury said. "It's kind of sacrilege, it's kind of treason, but our research suggests there could be."

Calls for expanding study-abroad participation, which have grown louder in the decade since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, rest on the belief that an overseas educational experience increases intercultural knowledge and global understanding through extended contact with a different culture. Many educators and policy makers argue that such a perspective is critical to the success of today's college graduates, and a handful of institutions, such as Goucher College, outside Baltimore, have even begun to require that all students earn some academic credit abroad.

Indeed, the study, which Mr. Salisbury conducted with two professors at the University of Iowa, Brian P. An and Ernest T. Pascarella, found that time overseas has a "significant positive effect" on students' intercultural competence. But it may not be as broadly transformative as many believe, they concluded.

The researchers based their analysis on data on about 1,645 students at 17 four-year colleges collected as part of the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education, a large-scale, long-term study of students who entered college as freshmen from 2006 through 2008. To measure changes over time, students were surveyed at the start of their first year, at the end of their first year, and in the second semester of their fourth year.

Because students who have higher levels of intercultural competence are also likely to study abroad, the researchers controlled for a number of pre-college characteristics that influence the likelihood of participation in overseas study, such as standardized-test scores, gender, and early aspirations to go abroad. The study also accounted for initial variations in students' cross-cultural knowledge and understanding.

The findings, which were presented at a recent Association for the Study of Higher Education meeting, suggest that study abroad may not increase all domains of intercultural competence equally. If overseas study increases the diversity of students' contacts but has little impact on their comfort in such interactions or their appreciation of different perspectives, colleges may want to rethink their approach to study abroad—especially if other, on-campus activities can have an equal or greater effect, Mr. Salisbury said.

At the same time, Mr. Salisbury, who is an author of several other papers examining the racial and gender differences in study-abroad participation, said the findings should not be interpreted to advocate abandoning overseas education. For one, he said, it may not be realistic to expect that all types of intercultural competency develop simultaneously. So the exposure to diverse experiences through study abroad may be a necessary first step to greater comfort with and appreciation of other cultures, he said.

Certain types of study-abroad programs may also be more effective at increasing broad intercultural competency, Mr. Salisbury said. The study did not differentiate between program lengths, type of immersion, or location of study. And there may be programming, both in and out of the classroom, that colleges can put in place before and after an overseas experience that could foster greater intercultural knowledge and understanding, Mr. Salisbury said.

"This doesn't suggest that we should throw out study abroad at all," he said. "But maybe we should think long and hard about what we want study abroad to accomplish."


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