In 2000, researchers began an ambitious effort to document the academic outcomes of study abroad across the 35-institution University System of Georgia. Ten years later, they’ve found that students who study abroad have improved academic performance upon returning to their home campus, higher graduation rates, and improved knowledge of cultural practices and context compared to students in control groups. They’ve also found that studying abroad helps, rather than hinders, academic performance of at-risk students.
“The skeptics of study abroad have always made the argument that study abroad is a distraction from the business of getting educated, so you can enter the economy and become a contributing member of society,” said Don Rubin, professor emeritus of speech communication and language education at the University of Georgia and research director for GLOSSARI -- the Georgia Learning Outcomes of Students Studying Abroad Research Initiative. “I think if there’s one take-home message from this research as a whole it is that study abroad does not undermine educational outcomes, it doesn’t undermine graduation rate, it doesn’t undermine final semester GPA. It’s not a distraction.
“At worst, it can have relatively little impact on some students’ educational careers. And at best it enhances the progress toward degree. It enhances the quality of learning as reflected in things like GPA.”
The GLOSSARI project  is of impressive scope and scale, and not every finding shows a positive impact of study abroad -- self-reported knowledge of world geography, for instance, actually decreased across time both for study abroad students and for a control group, and researchers found no significant difference in knowledge of global interdependence between the two sets of students. Rubin and Richard C. Sutton, director of the GLOSSARI project, executive director of international programs at Western Kentucky University, and formerly assistant vice chancellor for international programs at the University System of Georgia, presented these and other findings in a “final report” on the GLOSSARI project at the recent NAFSA: Association of International Educators conference in Kansas City.
Among their findings:
Graduation Rates and GPA: Researchers compared graduation rates and grade point averages for 19,109 study abroad students, from across the state system (which includes community colleges, research universities and institutions in between), with a control group of 17,903 students selected to match the institution, semester of study and class standing of the students who’d studied abroad. “What we’ve tried to do in this project is to be very, very careful about who we compare with study abroad students,” said Rubin. “There are all these arguments that say the reason why graduation rates are higher for study abroad students are they are of higher socioeconomic status, or they may be more industrious, or they may be choosing easier majors.”
Study abroad students, in other words, aren’t representative of all students in the Georgia system. So, rather than merely compare the study abroad students’ graduation rates and other academic outcomes with systemwide rates for first-time, full-time freshmen, who drop out for any number of reasons, the researchers compared study abroad students to a control group of students who had already persisted to the same point in college. They also constructed the control group to closely represent the institutions the study abroad students were coming from (the University of Georgia sends more students abroad than, say, Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, and the control group was created with a goal of reflecting that). “Our goal,” said Rubin, “was to isolate the effect of study abroad and to make our groups as comparable in every respect except that one group studied abroad and the other did not.”
They found that the four-year graduation rate was 49.6 percent for study abroad students, compared to 42.1 percent for students in the control group (and 24 percent for students in the University System of Georgia as a whole). Six-year rates were 88.7 percent for study abroad participants and 83.4 percent for students in the control group (and 49.3 percent systemwide). The effect held across various subgroups of students divided by gender, race and SAT score, but was particularly pronounced for certain groups – most dramatically, four-year graduation rates for African-Americans who’d studied abroad were 31 percent higher than for African-American students in the control group. Four-year graduation rates for other nonwhite students who’d studied abroad were 18 percent higher than for their peers in the control group. Nationally, nonwhite students remain underrepresented in study abroad  -- according to the latest data, from the Institute of International Education’s Open Doors survey, 81.8 percent of Americans studying abroad in 2007-8 were white.
The GLOSSARI Project found that for students who’d studied abroad, their mean cumulative GPA prior to going overseas was 3.24 and their mean cumulative GPA afterward was 3.30. For the control group over the same period, the mean GPA increased from 3.03 to 3.06. Researchers found a particularly pronounced effect of study abroad on academic performance among students who entered college with the lowest SAT scores. Among students who entered college with a combined SAT score of 800 (on the verbal and math sections), those who studied abroad ended up with a GPA of 3.21 compared to 3.14 for those students who stayed stateside. On the other extreme, for those students who entered college with a perfect SAT score of 1600, study abroad had no effect on their GPA, which on average was 3.25 regardless.
“The conventional wisdom is that students who are at risk should be discouraged from studying abroad altogether,” Rubin said. “But this suggests that study abroad can actually be an intervention to enhance the success for college students who are at-risk. Rather than derailing them, rather than diverting them, it actually focuses them.”
Intercultural Learning Outcomes: In another phase of the study, researchers administered a 29-question intercultural learning outcomes instrument to 440 study abroad and 230 non-study abroad participants from 13 Georgia institutions. “There are so many different ways in which students are going overseas and we had to look at a way to assess that across this variety of platforms,” said Sutton.
From pre- to post-test, study abroad participants surpassed non-study abroad participants in measures related to functional knowledge of cultural practices – the ability to say what’s funny in another culture, for instance, or take a train or bus to reach a destination. Study abroad students also grew in their knowledge of cultural context – for example, in their knowledge of how different cultural settings affect one’s own reactions and interactions with others – relative to non-study abroad students.
Again, on measures related to knowledge of global interdependence and world geography there was no significant difference between the control group and study abroad students. (The general decline in knowledge of world geography – the ability to name four rivers in Europe and three in Asia, or name six countries in Africa – was, unfortunately, a common finding irrespective of time overseas).
The GLOSSARI project did not consider outcomes related to second-language acquisition during study abroad (although lots of other studies have considered these questions). Researchers did find, however, that time spent speaking a target language was correlated with higher intercultural learning more generally, Rubin said.
Disciplinary Learning Outcomes: Another phase of the study considered student learning in courses taught on campus and abroad. Researchers looked at three case studies of courses taught on the home campus and overseas – a Novels of Jane Austen class (taught in Oxford), a French Revolution and Napoleon class (taught in Paris) and an Intercultural Communication class (also taught in Paris). “I was disappointed that despite some vigorous efforts we ended up with only three really good case studies,” said Rubin. “There were a variety of reasons why. We insisted that the majority of the learning objectives had to be the same [in both versions of the course]… another requirement was that they had to be taught by the same teacher.” Researchers also wanted the student assignments to be the same on campus and overseas, as external evaluators looked at student work in gauging student learning.
Students seemed to acquire more “fact detail” knowledge in courses taught on campus -- in the Austen class, for instance, students who took the course on campus cited more examples in their essays. One external rater noted, of the campus-based class, “I saw more answers that demonstrated a deeper understanding, not just of Austen’s body of work, but also of the political and social climate during the time of her writing.” In some ways, Rubin said, this finding is to be expected, as the duration of the study abroad version of the course was shorter and students in that class read fewer of Austen’s books.
“On the other hand the big-picture kind of learning, the more conceptual learning and the sense of why this is important or why this is still relevant, clearly came across more strongly in the study abroad classes,” Rubin said. For instance, students in the French Revolution class “saw how the events of revolution are interwoven into contemporary France, which is something that students who studied it domestically never achieved. For them it was just a history class.”
“One of the implications that people who design programs might think about is the value of what’s now being called hybrid learning abroad -- classes in which a substantial component is done domestically,” Rubin said.
The GLOSSARI project was funded in part by a $547,000 U.S. Department of Education grant, which expired June 30. Their data collection work completed, Rubin and Sutton are now making the GLOSSARI database  available to other researchers to pursue further questions.
Outcomes Research in Study Abroad
“What’s distinctive about the GLOSSARI project is that it’s system-wide,” said Brian Whalen, president and CEO of the Forum on Education Abroad. “No other project really matches it, I don’t think, in terms of the scope and the coherence.”
But there’s no question that there has been a huge increase in research into study abroad outcomes, as study abroad has grown and as colleges increasingly emphasize the need to assess student learning outcomes more generally. As the latest indication of this, a NAFSA task force recently issued a report  on assessing international education -- which should, the report argued, “be fully integrated into the broader assessment of U.S. higher education."
Whalen, the editor of Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, said increased assessment activity is happening on both institutional and faculty-driven levels. “Projects such as the GLOSSARI project, which are very comprehensive and are institutionally-based, are becoming more common as institutions are seeking to establish very good benchmarks for international education,” he said. “Accrediting associations are holding those institutions accountable.”
”And then you have another wave of research that’s coming out of faculty members in disciplines” – many of whom have led short-term study abroad programs. A recent issue of Frontiers,  for instance, included an article by education scholars on the role of study abroad in teacher education, and another article -- its first author a molecular and cellular biologist – documented changes in intercultural knowledge and competence as a result of international, undergraduate research experience.
That same issue also highlighted the findings of the Georgetown Consortium Project, another major, cross-university study that which compared language acquisition -- gains in oral proficiency, specifically -- and intercultural learning of students who studied abroad and those who studied the target language in U.S. classrooms. As the authors of the latter study write, in outlining the context for their research, research in student learning abroad has “increased dramatically. During the 1970s, 189 research studies were published; that number had increased by 675 by the 1990s. During the first decade of the 21st century, the number will almost certainly exceed 1,000.”
The research on study abroad outcomes covers a broad range of topics and uses a variety of instruments in asking questions related to second-language acquisition, or changes in attitudes, beliefs or knowledge as a result of study abroad. Among the many tools being used in study abroad research are the IDI (the Intercultural Development Inventory), the CCAI (the Cross-Cultural Adaptability Inventory), the OPI (the oral proficiency interview), the SOPI (the simulated oral proficiency interview), and the BEVI (the Beliefs, Events and Values Inventory). The Beyond Immediate Impact: Study Abroad for Global Engagement (SAGE) project, based at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, uses an instrument called the Global Engagement Survey to track long-term outcomes of study abroad on dimensions including civic engagement, knowledge production, philanthropy and social entrepreneurship.
“There has been some outstanding research that’s already been done in second-language learning overseas, in personal development, intercultural growth, and attitudinal and behavioral changes that occur as a result of study abroad,” said Sutton, the GLOSSARI project director. “But what we felt when we began the GLOSSARI study was that there had been limited efforts and attention paid to learning outcomes and knowledge acquisition and skill acquisition that we felt really needed to be addressed.
“We saw this very much as a first step, although it turned out to be a very long step.”