How study abroad may affect academic success

Students who study abroad are more likely to graduate on time — and students from underrepresented minority groups or on need-based aid benefit the most from studying overseas.

Students who studied abroad were six percentage points more likely to graduate in four years and four percentage points more likely to graduate in six years than their classmates, according to new research from the University System of Georgia. They also graduated with higher cumulative grade-point averages than their peers.

As colleges push to improve completion rates, the findings suggest that education abroad is an academic experience that could have a positive impact on graduation goals.

The study, which included more than 220,000 students at 35 colleges and was supported by the U.S. Department of Education, also counters a common criticism of study abroad, that it can disrupt students’ studies and delay their graduation. While students who studied overseas earned more credits than their classmates, they finished their degrees in slightly less time.

“The college-completion agenda really sits at the head of the table for higher ed,” said Donald Rubin, a professor emeritus in communication studies at the University of Georgia and a co-author of the study. Nationally, only about 40 percent of undergraduate students graduate within four years and 60 percent graduate in six years.

The research shows that study abroad contributes to these broader measures of student success, Rubin said. “Look, if we’re boosting graduation rates by four percentage points, that’s a big deal.”

Completing an international-study program may benefit underserved students even more, even though they traditionally go abroad at lower rates. Students on need-based aid who studied abroad were six percentage points more likely to graduate in six years than students receiving financial support who didn’t go overseas.

For first-generation students who studied abroad, there was a 6.5 percentage point increase in the likelihood of graduating in six years. And for underrepresented minority students, the impact was nearly eight percentage points.

“If we are concerned with equity in higher education and in completing college, helping these students study abroad seems very efficacious,” Rubin said.

Angela Bell, vice chancellor for research and policy analysis for the Georgia system and a co-author, said the fact that education-abroad students graduate in a shorter time, with just a few additional credits, about two extra credit hours, suggests that study abroad is being “effectively integrated into the undergraduate experience as opposed to being an add-on.”

Still, she noted the precipitous decline in study abroad during the pandemic. Many programs are only now fully beginning to resume. Given its positive impact on student completion, it’s important to continue to invest in education abroad “despite that uncertainty,” Bell said.

Based on the findings, colleges may also want to make greater efforts to get more students of color or on financial aid abroad, through scholarships and stipends for overseas study and closer partnerships with diversity and academic-advising offices, Rubin said.

The project, which is known as Cassie, or Consortium for Analysis of Student Success through International Education, focused on students who started college in fall 2010 and 2011.

Because education abroad is self-selecting and tends to attract students with better academic records, the researchers did not compare students who studied overseas with the broader college population. Instead, they conducted a “matching analysis,” comparing students to peers with similar profiles on variables including high-school grades, SAT scores, number of semesters completed, and even major. Nonetheless, there may be certain intangible factors they were unable to control for, like good time management, that contribute to academic success, Rubin said.

From offshore to online?

In The Review, Andrew Ross declares the “boom” in offshore campuses over and speculates about what comes next.

Ross, a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University, has long been one of the most vocal critics of the international branch campuses of American colleges and of his own institution, which has outposts in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai. I would quibble with some of his premises: For one, I’m not sure there ever was a serious branch-campus boom, especially among American colleges. His central argument, however, is likely to be familiar to anyone following this long-running debate, that it’s impossible to safeguard academic speech and other freedoms central to American education in illiberal countries.

To me, the essay got interesting when Ross shifted to the future, positing that the pandemic could usher in a new mode of international engagement through online education. Covid has gotten colleges more comfortable with remote instruction, and university leaders could be attracted to the “prospect of ginning up revenue from overseas students willing to Zoom into class at inhospitable hours in hopes of earning a degree at the home campus,” Ross writes.

But Ross’s skepticism doesn’t seem to be simply rooted in the longstanding critique of academic-quality control in remote education. Instead, he returns to the branch-campus debate to frame higher ed’s dilemma: If colleges take their online offerings global, does it raise new concerns about censorship and academic freedom, such as potential surveillance of Zoom-class discussions by repressive governments?

Readers, I’d love to hear what you think: Will there be a post-pandemic rush among colleges to establish a global online footprint? How should institutions grapple with ensuring academic integrity and open classrooms in a virtual setting? What are additional considerations, pro and con, for expanding American higher ed’s international reach in this way? Send your responses to karin.fischer@chronicle.com, and I could publish some in a future newsletter.

What foreign-born academics want you to know

Not long ago, Lamis E. Abdelaaty was preparing to speak at a diversity, equity, and inclusion event at a conference. While Abdelaaty has always felt supported at her own institution, Syracuse, where she is an assistant professor of political science, she was struck by how “little knowledge of (and, frankly, little interest in)” issues facing foreign-born faculty members there was in the conference discussion, she said in an email.

So Abdelaaty, an expert in international relations, refugees, and human rights, composed a series of tweets, laying out the often-hidden pressures facing foreign-born professors and graduate students. Among some of the issues: being far from family and support networks, funding opportunities that exclude noncitizens, the pressure to serve as cultural ambassadors, and narrow expectations about research interests based on social and cultural background.

Others weighed in about the difficulties of getting visas to go to international conferences, the anxiety caused by immigration rules, and the high cost, in money and time, of traveling home, especially for younger academics.

Abdelaaty’s advice: “Recognize the structural inequities that are built into academia. Push for mentoring, accommodations, support for students, hiring/retention of foreign-born scholars.”

If you’re a foreign-born faculty member or graduate student, what challenges do you face that might not be visible to American colleagues? How can colleges better support you and the work you do? Tell me at karin.fischer@chronicle.com.

Around the globe

The Biden administration may waive certain visa requirements to make it easier for Russian scientists and researchers to come to the United States.

Some 100 members of Congress have signed a letter in support of increasing federal funding for international education and foreign-language studies.

Male and female students will attend classes on different days as part of a new Taliban effort to impose gender segregation on Afghan universities.

French academics had feared the election of a far-right candidate could damage research and international collaboration, but they remain unsure of President Emmanuel Macron’s plans for science and research.

Students at Duke University’s campus in China protested harsh penalties for those who miss mandatory Covid tests.

The University of Hong Kong’s proposed plans to discipline students who “bring disrepute” to the institution has raised new worries about free expression on campus.

International graduates of Canadian universities will be able to stay in the country and work longer as part of a plan to tackle labor shortages.

One critic questions the motivations behind new global rankings that attempt to measure universities’ social and environmental impact.

And finally …

A student poetry contest has become an unlikely vehicle for public frustration about social issues in China.

Submissions to an annual poetry contest sponsored by Shanghai Jiaotong University touched on a host of contentious issues, including censorship, gender, the war in Ukraine, and restrictive lockdown measures. The students’ outspokenness was notable as public dissent has become more difficult under the current government. The university has since taken down the controversial poems, but The Washington Post has published some, in translation.

Thanks for reading. I always welcome your feedback and ideas for future reporting, so drop me a line at karin.fischer@chronicle.com. You can also connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn. If you like this newsletter, please share it with colleagues and friends. They can sign up here.