Few undergraduate experiences inspire more fervent advocacy than study abroad. These arguments seem increasingly compelling today as a growing list of economic, environmental, and technological challenges underscore our need for a more globally savvy and culturally interconnected populace.
But beneath the appealing evangelism lies a perplexing reality: Despite annual press releases touting another "record" number of students abroad, the actual proportion of college students overseas has remained virtually unchanged. And as higher-education enrollments have grown more diverse, the demographic profile of those studying abroad continues to be mostly white and female. Furthermore, while many people have vociferously argued that studying abroad is the ideal way to gain crucial cross-cultural skills, a close look at the supporting research makes it difficult to be sure whether the findings amount to legitimate proof or preconceptions in search of corroborating evidence.
If study abroad is critical to the future success of our students and our society, why hasn't it become more common among undergraduates? Maybe, despite increased investment in study abroad, other obstacles continue to severely limit participation. Or maybe current marketing messages about the value of study abroad work more like a dog whistle audible to those tuned to an internationalist frequency than like a megaphone that can be heard by everyone. Even worse, what if we've oversold the benefits of study abroad, and everyone sees it but us?
A major element that undermines the growth of study abroad continues to be the inability (or lack of desire) to disentangle the rhetoric from the reality. After all, let's be honest: While a lot of good people are deeply invested in the transformative value of international education, a lot of money is changing hands in the study-abroad business. If study abroad is to assume a more central role in undergraduate education, we need to let go of the mythology and act on what we already know about (a) how intentions of studying abroad affect the likelihood of participation, (b) the impact of study-abroad marketing messages on diverse students' intent to study abroad, and (c) what learning outcomes can realistically be expected from study abroad.
Unlike many undergraduate educational opportunities, participation in study-abroad programs is preceded by a complex planning process. The experience comes to fruition only when students are certain about their intentions. If interests change or resolve waivers, it's less likely they will follow through. A recent multi-institutional study found that the greatest predictor of students' participation in study abroad was the seriousness of their intention, a factor that had an impact larger than all other significant predictors combined.
Yet, while experts may focus on rates of participation as a measure of success, those numbers provide few clues on how to increase participation in study abroad. Research has revealed a complex interplay of financial, academic, attitudinal, and contextual factors that contribute to a student's intention to study abroad. While some of those factors emerge before college (such as race, gender, and socioeconomic status), others can significantly increase the likelihood that a student will develop an interest in studying abroad during a period in which it's still possible to fit international study into a four-year educational plan. Those influential factors include, for example, the amount of diverse and integrative learning experiences that students have during their first year of college.
While it might seem obvious to suggest that how someone responds to stimuli is influenced by his or her point of view, professionals concerned with student participation in study abroad would do well to think this through. For example, recent studies have found that men's relationships with others in their peer group can undermine intentions to study abroad, while women's relationships with their peers seem to have no impact. Conversely, while women seem to listen to encouragement from parents and faculty regarding study abroad, men seem to pay no heed. Yet study abroad is often promoted with a one-size-fits-all approach.
The most dramatic example of this phenomenon lies at the very core of study-abroad advocacy. Study abroad is largely promoted as the ideal way to develop the cross-cultural skills necessary to succeed in a diverse and global society. Now, imagine for a moment that you are one of a few minority students at a majority-white university. You've likely taken a major step outside your comfort zone simply by enrolling at this institution. Then imagine that every piece of promotional material and every study-abroad administrator says that, in order for you to develop cross-cultural skills, you need to travel halfway around the world. Meanwhile, for you, every day is a cross-cultural swim in the deep end of the pool. So even though you might be curious about international issues, how long would it take you to roll your eyes and ignore future invitations to study abroad?
If we are going to claim that international education will increase an awareness of multiple perspectives and the ability to adapt accordingly, then we probably ought to exemplify those skills in our own efforts to promote study abroad. A study-abroad experience can do more than improve intercultural skills; if well designed, it can also increase self-awareness and strengthen a commitment to civic engagement. Emphasizing such broader benefits might be more effective in recruiting minority students to study abroad without sounding so obviously tone-deaf to the life experiences of the minority students we hope to attract.
Claims about the potential educational value of study abroad sometimes sound a bit like a late-night TV infomercial ("it slices, it dices, it calculates pi!"). In addition to promising global knowledge and cross-cultural skills, Web sites promoting study abroad regularly claim that their programs develop critical thinking, problem solving, intellectual curiosity, moral judgment, self-efficacy, personal growth, career skills, and civic engagement, to name only a few. Public claims like these seem to vary little despite differences in the location, degree of immersion, length of stay, and other characteristics of various programs. Although slightly more measured, the research findings on study abroad reflect a similar range of effects. However, the literature is riddled with methodological holes that leave many of the findings open to alternative explanations—most commonly that participants developed certain learning outcomes either before they studied abroad or because they were uniquely predisposed to do so. In both instances, the study-abroad experience can't necessarily claim credit for the results.
More troubling than the suggestion that study abroad might be an all-encompassing educational elixir is the implicit assumption that studying abroad could, by itself, produce such a wide range of learning outcomes. That simply doesn't comport with everything we know about the nature of complex learning. A more honest claim would be that studying abroad might, under specific learning conditions and as a part of a sequence of intentionally designed educational experiences, uniquely contribute to a student's development toward a set of complex learning outcomes.
The issue isn't whether study abroad might contribute to learning. It's a question of what type of learning is a realistic expectation of study abroad and how that can be integrated into a broader educational experience designed to meet specific learning goals. Studying abroad can temporally alter attitudes and values, but translating those shifts into deep and sustained positive change can't be reasonably expected solely of study abroad. One basic tenet of learning is that deep, sustainable development comes from a process that includes an experience of disequilibrium followed by period of reflective meaning-making. Yet our obsession with rates of participation in study abroad has produced an environment in which institutions regularly leave the meaning-making to chance.
For study abroad to legitimately emerge as a central element of the undergraduate learning experience, we need to be honest about what it can and cannot contribute to student learning. We need to stop squabbling about minimum program lengths, depths of immersion, and whether or not some locations are cross-cultural enough. Instead, we need to accept the possibility that every off-campus program (across an international border or not) can achieve powerful learning outcomes if it is designed around specific learning goals and linked to on-campus learning experiences that occur before departure and upon return.
Then we need to situate these programs fully within the larger educational endeavor so that they can reach their potential as a powerful spark that lights a lifelong flame. Once we know more about the precise educational and developmental role that study abroad can play, then we can begin to design programs that meet diverse students' needs and make a plausible, more inclusive, and likely more compelling case for participation.