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The Study Abroad Advantage

Study abroad alumni have better career outcomes, according to two studies assessing the impact of Europe’s Erasmus exchange program.

February 1, 2016
 

European students who study in another country through European Union-funded Erasmus exchanges are more likely to find jobs, ascend to management positions, live abroad and even find a romantic partner of another nationality, according to a study of the program’s outcomes. The employment advantages enjoyed by study abroad alumni are highest for students from Eastern and Southern Europe.

A new E.U.-commissioned study examines the region-by-region impact of the Erasmus program, which provides funding for intra-European study and work exchanges. The regional analysis builds on a large-scale study published last year that looked at the overall impact of the program continentwide.

That first study, based in part on a survey of 56,733 students, 18,618 alumni and 652 employers, found that Erasmus alumni had an advantage in finding a first job: 2 percent of program alumni needed more than 12 months to find a first job, compared to 4 percent of nonmobile alumni. Five years after graduation, the unemployment rate for internationally mobile students (7 percent) was 23 percent lower than for nonmobile students (9 percent).

Students who participated in Erasmus exchanges were nearly twice as likely to have moved to another country after graduation than were nonmobile alumni (40 versus 23 percent) and nearly three times as likely to have a life partner with a different nationality than their own (33 versus 13 percent).

“The Erasmus Impact Study” also looked at the effect of study abroad experiences on the development of certain personality traits valued by the vast majority of the surveyed employers, specifically tolerance of ambiguity (defined as “acceptance of other people’s culture and attitudes and adaptability”), curiosity (“openness to new experiences”), confidence (“trust in own competence”), serenity (“awareness of own strengths and weaknesses”), decisiveness (“ability to make decisions”), and vigor (“ability to solve problems”).

Using a tool called Memo, designed by CHE Consult, a Berlin-based higher education consulting company that led the research effort, researchers found that students who participated in Erasmus scored more highly on tests of these traits prior to going abroad than did their peers who didn’t. That is, there is a self-selection effect in that those students who choose to go abroad are, not surprisingly, predisposed to be curious, confident, etc. Pre- and postdeparture surveys, however, show that slightly more than half of Erasmus students (52 percent) make further gains on these traits while abroad.

The second of the two studies, released last week, breaks down the data regarding Erasmus’s impact across Europe’s four regions (eastern and western, northern and southern). Among the findings are that the career outcomes associated with exchanges seem to be most pronounced for students from Eastern and Southern Europe. For example, while Erasmus alumni as a group are, as noted above, half as likely as their nonmobile peers to be unemployed more than 12 months after graduation (2 vs. 4 percent), this difference is greater for former program participants in Eastern Europe (1 vs. 6 percent) and Southern Europe (3 vs. 6 percent), than for Northern and Western Europe (2 vs. 3 percent).

Furthermore, Erasmus alumni from Eastern Europe are especially likely to ascend to management positions: while all Erasmus alumni are more likely to hold management positions five to 10 years after graduation than nonmobile peers (64 vs. 55 percent), the difference is particularly large in Eastern Europe (70 vs. 41 percent).

Students in Southern Europe who did work placements abroad through Erasmus were also more likely to receive job offers abroad from their host companies: this was true for about one in three Erasmus alumni, and nearly one in two alumni (45 percent) from Southern Europe.

The Erasmus program, though not particularly selective over all, is more than twice as selective in Eastern and Southern Europe (where about one in five applications are rejected) than in Northern and Western Europe (where fewer than one in 10 applications are rejected).

“You just see clear patterns that in Southern Europe the advantage is much bigger, also in Eastern Europe,” said Uwe Brandenburg, managing partner at CHE Consult and the project leader on both studies. “Our feeling is that in many ways it mirrors the economic situation. Such mobility is of course boosting your opportunities, and that’s particularly important when you have a not-so-easy labor market.”

The percentage of 20- to 24-year-olds who are unemployed and not enrolled in education or training exceeds 25 percent in Greece, Hungary, Italy, Spain and Turkey, according to Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development data from 2013. (The average for OECD member countries is 18.2 percent.)

Brandenburg said the study, though focused on the impacts of intra-European exchanges, has implications for assessment of study abroad outcomes more generally. “What is really different about the study is that for the first time we use a method we developed to measure employability-related personality traits,” he said.

It’s not enough, Brandenburg said, to measure outputs like the number or percentage of students who study abroad, or to merely ask students if they think they’ve changed as a consequence of the experience without rigorously testing those changes (he compared this to a physics instructor asking students if they think they improved in physics at the end of the semester in lieu of giving an exam). “It’s the duty of everybody in higher education to make sure that what we do has the desired effect,” Brandenburg said. “And that is something where I think there is still a little to be desired in internationalization. I think we are too satisfied, too often, with outputs.”

“There is always one single person behind outputs,” he said -- “hope, desires, disappointments and a life ahead.”

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