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Kathleen Sideli
Associate VP for Overseas Study

Last modified: Wednesday, September 9, 2009

New data from the IU Office of Overseas Study contradict study abroad myths

Sept. 9, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Basic assumptions that students make about study abroad -- that they might have a lower grade point average, for example, or take longer to graduate -- are turning out to be myths, according to innovative research at Indiana University.

Researchers in the IU Office of University Planning, Institutional Research and Accountability recently published an analysis of study abroad trends at IU Bloomington. The report is one of the first to utilize well-respected sources of institutional data as the basis for a rigorous statistical analysis of study abroad "plans, participation and outcomes." Among its conclusions, based on data for IU Bloomington students who began their studies between 2001 and 2007, are that study abroad students in that period maintained higher grades, and that more of them graduated in four years, than their peers who did not study abroad.

IU Bloomington has been recognized by U.S. News and World Report as one of the top schools for study abroad in the U.S., and encouraging more students to undertake a study abroad experience during their undergraduate careers is central to IU's International Strategic Plan. The Office of Overseas Study offers more than 100 study abroad programs in 37 countries, and facilitates the IU study abroad experiences of more than 2,000 students on all eight Indiana University campuses.

Kathleen Sideli, associate vice president for overseas study, has worked much of her career to improve the quality of the data on U.S. study abroad. "This IU research is a breakthrough for us," she said. "It provides new ways of understanding the study abroad experience.

"Those who work with study abroad students -- before, during and after their time abroad -- know intuitively that many of the hurdles they raise before they go turn out to be needless worries," she said. "The new information vindicates that belief and will perhaps reduce students' concerns about any negative impact study abroad may have on their academic careers."

The report provides hard data showing that study abroad students have earned higher grades and completed degrees in four years at a higher rate than their peers even after taking into account other differences that affect grades and graduation rates. The average study abroad student earned a cumulative GPA of 3.21 compared to 3.12 for peers who didn't study abroad, and had a probably of .91 of completing the bachelor's degree in four years, compared to .84 for peers.

It also tracks initial interest in study abroad against actually fulfilling that interest and notes significant trends. For example, female students both plan to study abroad and act on those plans more than males. Students planning to study arts and humanities, business and social science are among the most likely students to plan to go abroad and also to fulfill those plans. On the other hand, students in math, science and education are less likely to plan for study abroad and also less likely to go.

Understanding these trends, program administrators can identify areas where programmatic changes may encourage students and cohorts of students who may need special attention.

The IU Office of Overseas Study staff has joined other universities looking at the study-abroad experience. The project "Beyond Immediate Impact: Study Abroad for Global Engagement" is being conducted by researchers at the University of Minnesota and is funded by the Department of Education. Its goal is to identify the impact that a study abroad experience has on later careers and activities.

Analysis of the research is not yet complete, but researchers recently offered some preliminary findings in its survey of alumni of 22 U.S. colleges and universities, including more than 6,000 students who studied abroad at some time during the past 40 years.

Respondents collectively named study abroad as the college experience with the greatest impact on their lives. A total of 98.4 percent of respondents declared that study abroad has had "strong or some impact" on their lives. Course work (96.3 percent) and friendships (95.6 percent) came in second and third. More than half of the respondents reported that their experiences overseas influenced their civic and charitable engagement later in life.

The IU report on overseas study can be viewed in its entirety at