Drive to get more lower-income US students to study abroad

Global study tied to gains in grades and graduate rates, though affordability remains a major obstacle

February 23, 2019
Students on train
Source: Getty

International education advocates in the US are pushing to widen participation in study-abroad experiences as new research underlines the benefits of going overseas for low-income and ethnic minority students.

Preliminary data from the study by the University System of Georgia of learners across its 26 public institutions showed gains in measures including grade averages and graduation rates.

Angela Bell, the Georgia system’s associate vice-chancellor of research and policy analysis, presented her data at the annual conference of the Institute of International Education in New York, where attendees showed enthusiasm for moving study-abroad beyond its traditional base of whiter and wealthier students.

Dr Bell’s data showed that lower-income students – those using need-based financial aid to cover university costs – saw a 12 percentage point gain in their six-year graduation rates, and a 0.1 increase in grade-point averages, if they had a study-abroad experience. Among minority students, the gains were nearly 15 percentage points for graduation within six years, and 0.12 for GPA, she said.

Wealthier and whiter students also saw statistically significant academic gains tied to studying abroad, though not as large, said Dr Bell, director of the Consortium for Analysis of Student Success through International Education.

After the event, Dr Bell said that she hoped her analyses will “allow us to make stronger claims” to various funders about the benefit of funding studying abroad for low-income students.

“Increasingly, requests for additional resources or changes to policy or practice require substantiation with hard data,” she said.

Only about 10 per cent of US college students go abroad during their degree, with more than 70 per cent of them white, and with average experiences growing shorter and involving fewer foreign languages. The top five destination countries for US students are in western Europe, led by the UK.

Others at the IIE conference made clear that costs – and fears – remained powerful barriers for many minority and lower-income US students with limited family exposure to the wider world.

One, Aaron Brazelton, described his teenage decision to study in Serbia as an exercise in conquering not only his own fears as a black student abroad, but those of his aunts, uncles and cousins. “This is so dangerous – why would you ever make this decision?” many of them warned, recalled Mr Brazelton, now the director of advancement and global engagement at a school in Atlanta.

Philip Altbach, research professor and founding director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, flatly rejected the idea of significant numbers of low-income US students ever enjoying study-abroad experiences.

“It’s not wishful thinking – it’s impossible, never going to happen, for all kinds of reasons,” said Professor Altbach. “The biggest one being financial.”

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