What do students gain from studying in other countries?
While there is anecdotal evidence aplenty about the positive—some students say life-changing—effects of a semester in Spain, Thailand, or other parts of the world, study-abroad coordinators are doing more to produce hard data to show the benefits of such excursions.
During a full day of workshops on ways to evaluate study abroad, part of the Forum on Education Abroad's annual conference here, participants said certain pressures are pushing them to assess their efforts. Those pressures include university budget cuts, which have placed scrutiny on sometimes expensive overseas programs; growing attention from accreditors; and demands by parents and students to show how study abroad will give graduates a leg up in a tight job market.
While these pressures are not new, academics who have worked in the field for years say there is a growing focus on assessing skills like a student's ability to navigate comfortably in different cultures.
"We weren't having these types of conversations 10 years ago," said Larry A. Braskamp, president of the Global Perspectives Institute, which created a test for colleges to measure the international outlook of students. "Provosts and deans are asking about the value added in study abroad."
To be sure, a number of institutions have developed robust data on how international programs may affect a student's personal growth and academic success. The Center for Global Education at the University of California at Los Angeles Graduate School of Education and Information Studies has collected research on the impact of study abroad on grade-point averages and retention, finding mostly positive results.
The Georgia Institute of Technology found that engineering students who studied overseas appeared more likely to be pleased with their entry into the job market and to benefit financially, according to a survey of alumni who graduated from 2001 to 2004. The survey found that 78.6 percent of students who studied internationally reported feeling "well or extremely well prepared to obtain employment after graduation," compared with 68.7 percent of their peers who hadn't gone abroad. Almost 29 percent of graduates who went overseas said they were earning more than $80,000, while only 19.5 percent of those who didn't leave campus earned that much.
Jonathan Gordon, director of assessment for Georgia Tech, cautioned that many factors could account for the findings. For example, students who go abroad are often highly motivated people to start with.
Even as they do more to measure their work, a number of participants here expressed what might be called assessment fatigue.
When asked in one session to say the first word that comes to mind when it comes to assessment, answers included, "again?", "busy work," and "why?"
Indeed, several speakers said that looking for data could distract university administrators from the aim of using measurements to improve the study-abroad experience and to achieve educational goals.
Study-abroad offices should be flexible in their approaches and not get bogged down in navel-gazing, said Mr. Gordon of Georgia Tech. "We're not testing experimental drugs to cure cancer," he said.