Many of the efforts to quantify study abroad’s impact focus on international learning outcomes: intercultural competency, “global-mindedness,” or foreign language acquisition. Increasingly, international educators are researching the link between study abroad and retention and graduation rates, busting the myth that study abroad delays time to graduation and raising questions about whether it can be used as a strategy to increase rates of student persistence and success.
At the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, for example, institutional research shows  that 64.5 percent of students who study abroad graduate in four years, compared to 41 percent of students who don’t; at the five-year mark the numbers increase to 90 percent for participants, and 58.6 percent for nonparticipants. At the University of California at San Diego, five-year graduation rates  are 92 percent for study abroad participants, and 78 percent for non- participants. Higher graduation rates for students who study abroad can be observed across a wide variety of variables, including race, gender, major, first-generation status, parental income, SAT score, and grade-point average.
“It’s fabulous to see that no matter what the variable, education abroad is not a barrier to timely graduation,” said Lynn C. Anderson, dean of international education at UCSD. “And in fact there seems to be a very positive correlation.”
International educators are quick to point out that correlation doesn’t equal causation. But they’re heartened by findings showing, for example, that even in a very highly structured major like engineering, students who study abroad graduate in a timelier manner than their peers who stay on campus. (At UCSD: 92 percent versus 77 percent in five years.) And they’re intrigued by findings suggesting that the correlation between graduation rates and study abroad participation is particularly strong among certain subsets of students who have lower graduation rates overall.
The research here is mixed. An analysis at Indiana University at Bloomington  found that while all students who studied abroad graduated within four years at higher rates than comparable nonparticipants – researchers controlled for academic achievement, area of study, and socioeconomic and demographic background – the effect was smaller for underrepresented minority students (4 percentage points versus 7). However, a study conducted at Minnesota-Twin Cities found that the correlation between study abroad participation and graduation was particularly strong among students of color. And a systemwide study at the University of Georgia found that four-year graduation rates were 31 percent higher for African Americans who studied abroad when compared to a control group, and 18 percent higher for other nonwhite students. (More findings from the Georgia study, and details about construction of the control group, can be found here. ) Minority students are woefully underrepresented in U.S. study abroad; in 2009-10, 78.8 percent of participants were white. 
Furthermore, a recent study  by Heather Barclay Hamir at the University of Texas at Austin found that the effect of study abroad was particularly pronounced among students with lower freshman G.P.A.s: students with a 2.0 who studied abroad were 30 percent more likely to graduate in four years than nonparticipants, and 45 percent more likely to graduate in five years. Hamir, the director of study abroad at UT Austin, said the finding has led her to broaden study abroad options for academically at-risk students, identifying four semesterlong programs that will accept students with a 2.0 GPA rather than the previous minimum, a 2.5.
A common criticism of this kind of research is that students who study abroad are a self-selected group, and are likely to be higher-achieving and more motivated. Others counter, however, that the positive correlation between study abroad and graduation holds across variations in SAT scores and G.P.A.s, two key markers of achievement. And, in an attempt to control for motivation, Hamir compared UT Austin’s study abroad participants with students who applied and did not participate, finding that students who applied to study abroad but did not see it through had the same graduation rates as other nonparticipants. Hamir said that her findings “make a strong argument that study abroad is an academically enriching experience.”
“These are experiences where students deepen their commitment to learning and they’re motivated to get on with life,” said Gayle Woodruff, Minnesota’s director of curriculum and campus internationalization. “They see a potential that may not have been there before. Study abroad really ignites a kind of deeper learning for students.”
But Mark Salisbury, assistant dean and director of institutional research and assessment at Augustana College, cites reasons to be skeptical of a causal link between study abroad and on-time graduation. He suggested that the link may be indirect – attributable to the process of planning for study abroad rather than the experience of study abroad itself.
“When a student decides to study abroad, the process they have to go through is actually somewhat long and complex,” Salisbury said. “If you can get a student to actually play along with that process, you foster their investment in their education.”
“Not only does the student have a fairly clear sense of the curricular path they’re going to take to graduation, they’ve also been forced to reflect on the question of, 'Why am I doing this program, why am I participating in this series of experiences?' ”
Gary Rhodes, director of the Center for Global Education at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that the data regarding the link between study abroad and student persistence and graduation are promising, but that more research is needed. “We’ve got enough data to know that the potential seems to be there, and that these numbers should spark additional interest for institutions to look at their data and to consider using study abroad in that box of things to do to try to impact retention and success on campus,” he said.
A Signature Experience
Some work to this end is already under way, inspired partly by the work of the educational researcher George D. Kuh finding that study abroad is a “high-impact educational practice” that can contribute to increases in student engagement and retention. (Other “high-impact” practices  include first-year seminars, internships, learning communities, and capstone projects.)
At UT Austin, a recent task force on graduation rates  identified study abroad as an “academic enrichment” experience, along with undergraduate research and service learning, that should be expanded. The University of San Diego has also made study abroad a key focus of its retention strategy. As part of its efforts to strengthen the first- and second-year experience, the private, Roman Catholic institution created the “Second Year Experience Abroad Program” with the idea that it would serve as a signature experience for sophomores.
Students take one three-week course at an overseas site during January of their sophomore year. (This past year, students traveled to Florence, Seville or Hong Kong.) A USD faculty member teaches the course which is typically a part of the core curriculum – but one unique aspect of the program is the involvement of student affairs and university ministry professionals, who accompany the students on excursions and facilitate reflective sessions during the education abroad experience. (They’re called “experiential learning professionals.”)
The program is unique in a few other ways: students are asked to commit to the program with a $500 deposit the fall of their freshman year; they meet with their instructor and “ELP” for the first time that spring; and they attend three seminars in preparation for the experience their sophomore fall. “It’s a pretty intensive model and the purpose of that is to keep the student engaged,” said Jessica Luchesi, USD’s assistant director of international studies abroad.
“The program exposes students to people across campus that they might not have had a connection with,” added Kira Espiritu, the director of international studies abroad. “We’re connecting them not only with the students in their own cohort, but administrators, faculty, and staff members. When we look at the evaluations of the program, one of the highest-ranked components is, ‘I’ve made new friends that I wouldn’t have made otherwise.’ When you’re connected on a social level on campus it’s harder to leave.”
The program costs $4,500, and scholarships covering about three-quarters of the cost are available for Pell Grant recipients. Between 160 and 180 sophomores have participated each of the program’s first two years, making up more than 10 percent of the class.
Merrick Marino, assistant dean for USD’s Center for Student Success, said the university has seen increases in its retention rate. For the entering freshman class of 2009 – the first to benefit from the second year study abroad program – first to second year retention increased from 85 to 88 percent, and second- to third-year retention from 79 to 81 percent. However, Marino stressed that the sophomore year abroad program was developed at the same time that the university made multiple changes to the first-year experience -- including the use of surveys to identify students who struggle in the transition to college and the expansion of living and learning communities. “We have no idea which of our efforts have contributed to the improvement, or to what degree,” he said.