Worth the Trip?

Debating the Value of Study Abroad

Hikers take a selfie in Egypt's White Canyon, November 2015 Asmaa Waguih / Reuters


In “The Study-Abroad Solution” (March/April 2016), Sanford Ungar argues that a lack of overseas edu­cation among American college and uni­­versity students “hinders the creation and implementation of a rational, con­sistent, and nuanced foreign policy that reflects American values.” Ungar contends that only a major commitment of govern­ment and private-sector resources to “a dramatic long-term expansion” of study abroad will allow the United States to begin building “a more healthy relation­ship with the rest of the planet.”

Ungar’s belief in the value of know­ing and understanding others better is undeniably sincere, and in 20-plus years as a U.S. diplomat, I learned that inter­national understanding is always in short supply. But the specific benefits of study abroad that Ungar mentions—higher four-year graduation rates for study-abroad participants and increased earning potential—do not seem terribly relevant to improving U.S. foreign policy. What is more, Ungar treats study abroad as unquestionably beneficial for all and, like many of its advocates, argues an­ec­dot­ally, referring to the stories of students who returned from study abroad “with new ideas, stronger personalities, and a better sense of who they were,” after “transformative adventures that allowed them to see their own country . . . more clearly” and having observed things abroad “that the United States might be able to learn from.” Alas, having taught in two study-abroad programs in Europe between 2007 and 2010, I could provide anecdotes that would paint a very dif­ferent picture of study abroad’s outcomes.

But it’s not necessary to rely solely on competing impressions. In recent years, researchers—including some affiliated with the Forum on Education Abroad, which is recognized by the U.S. government as a standard-setting body, and some at IES Abroad, a major study-abroad provider—have applied sophisticated research tools to analyze the effect of overseas education. Their findings paint a complex and contradic­tory picture. Participants in study abroad do not necessarily come back changed in the expected

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