Tuesday, January 27, 2009

More Than 'Show Me the Money'

Colleges and universities face a number of challenges in selling study-abroad programs to their students in the coming years. And the challenges aren't only financial in nature.

Some soon-to-be-published research from a team of University of Iowa researchers argues that, while many colleges and universities are looking for more funds to support study-abroad opportunities, access to money is only one of several factors that enter into students' intents to take their work outside the country.

Mark Salisbury, Paul Umbach, Michael Paulsen and Ernest Pascarella will publish the results of their work in the March 2009 edition of Research in Higher Education. A conference version of their paper is available here.

According to the researchers, finances aren't the primary concern of undergraduate students who might benefit from a study-abroad experience. Even bigger are questions of social and cultural capital among undergraduate students — their interest in learning about other cultures, their attitude toward literacy and education in whole, and their level of high school involvement — that are difficult to significantly alter once students pack off to university.

In other words, developing an interest in study abroad among undergraduates is more challenging for institutions after their students show up on campus. 

And that, according to researchers, is a serious impediment in reaching the Congressionally established Lincoln Commission's goal of sending 1 million undergraduates abroad (a more than 400 percent increase from current levels of participation) by 2017. The assumption among many policy makers and academic leaders has been that more money for study abroad programs would lead to more students abroad.

To be sure, social-economic status does play a role in developing a student's intent to study abroad, according to the researchers. Students from higher income backgrounds are more likely to have accumulated critical social and cultural capital before attending college. Those students frequently attend the kinds of private liberal arts colleges were study-abroad programs have had the greatest impact.

The research may offer some insights on previously reported disparities in study-abroad participation rates based on gender, race and class. The greatest disparities regard gender, where women are twice as likely as men to participate in an abroad program.

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