In recent years, professionals in the international education industry have focused on making the case for study abroad (and international internships) by addressing its value on these terms: the experience creates global citizens, creates career-ready graduates, builds essential (sometimes industry-specific) professional skills and cross-cultural competencies, strengthens linguistic ability, and fosters a better understanding of critical world issues. And of course, if purposefully designed with any one, or all, of these goals in mind (and effectively communicated to students), education abroad programs have the potential to succeed in adding enormous value to a students’ academic experience and personal and professional development.
In addition, education abroad supports student employability, therefore, it demonstrably makes a significant contribution to the value proposition of a college education. This linkage is supported by a large volume of research (see Tillman, M. (2012). Employer Perspectives on International Education, in SAGE Handbook of International Higher Education) which unequivocally points to the high correlation between education abroad and ease of employability after graduation (meaning a higher likelihood of employment in a shorter period of time than for students without international experience).
The importance of linking a college degree to the expectation of employment is highlighted in the key findings from a 2016 report of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1):
- Only 40 percent of students complete a bachelor’s degree within four years
- Students take an average of almost six years to earn a bachelor’s degree
- Earnings of the average four-year graduate exceeded those of a typical high school graduate by more than $21,000 (and compounded over a working life, the sum of this earnings difference greatly exceeds the cost of paying for college)
Why is this information important to international educators? Because there is a gap between what we learn from this data and the perception of Americans about the overall value of higher education.
In a recent survey report, only 40% of Americans believe that a college education is necessary to leading “a successful professional life.”(2) This report goes on to say that “universities do not communicate our value well.” This a very practical way to examine the more esoteric discussions of late about the return on investment of going to college (the “return” referring to whether or not the degree actually leads to employment upon graduation). In this same public opinion survey, Americans hold a contrary, more positive view, when considering value of a degree in purely economic terms: 52% say “a college education is still the best investment by people who want to get ahead and succeed.”
So while questioning the undo emphasis placed on getting a degree, the survey acknowledges that the majority of respondents understand that obtaining an academic credential pays off, literally, in the long run. Why are institutions not more forcefully making this case to students and their families?
The need for institutions to make this linkage more transparent for students is made clear by findings of a 2016 Kaplan Survey (3), prepared by the Economist Intelligence Unit, which highlights the wide gap in student understanding of the value of international experience:
Here are the survey’s principal findings:
- Graduates believe that institutions of higher education have a responsibility to prepare them for today’s global economy and workforce.
- Three out of four respondents agree that it is part of the role of universities and colleges to prepare them by offering access to international experience. And almost as many (70%) feel that their higher education has challenged their beliefs and exposed them to different cultures and ways of thinking beyond their home country.
- Most students have access to international experiences during their studies, but only a minority take advantage of them.
- Opportunities to gain international experience during their studies were available to 75% of respondents. Most (69%) were offered the chance to study overseas, while 62% had access to foreign language courses and 55% to international cultural exchanges. But only 34% of those with access to international experience actually pursued it.
- Many students do not realize the importance of international exposure until after graduation, when its full value becomes clearer.
- Half of respondents feel that they failed to recognize the value of international experience during their studies, suggesting that higher education institutions may need to help students recognize the benefits of participation.
- International experience in higher education is seen as improving the chances of finding a job. Respondents who had gained international experience during their studies were twice as likely to be employed -within six months of graduation- than those who did not have the same opportunities.
We have clear evidence of a widespread gap in understanding among students enrolled in higher education institutions about the value of international experience to their overall collegiate experience. And we also know there is a growing devaluation among the general public about the value of a college degree (specifically its worth in the current economy).
To close this knowledge gap, the linkage between learning outcomes of international experience and student employability needs to be more effectively and purposefully communicated to students and their families.
- American Academy of Arts & Sciences (2016). “A Primer on the College Student Journey.” Retrieved from https://www.amacad.org/content/publications/publication.aspx?d=22363
- Public Agenda, (September 12, 2016). “Public Opinion on Higher Education,” Retrieved from file:///C:/Users/owner/Desktop/2016%20Public%20Opinion%20on%20Higher%20Education.html
- Kaplan (2016). “Going Global: Are graduates prepared for the global workforce? Retrieved from https://www.eiuperspectives.economist.com/sites/default/files/Going%20Global%20-%20Are%20graduates%20prepared%20for%20a%20global%20workforce.pdf