The economics of study abroad: Is it worth it?


Study abroad programs have grown more and more popular in recent years; however, skeptics wonder if the benefits are really worth the costs.  Spoiler alert:  It really depends on the program.  That being said, there are a few things to keep in mind when making the decision to study abroad. Location, program structure, and individual commitment levels will ultimately determine whether or not the experience is a huge waste of time and money.

In an NPR interview with Mark Salisbury, director of Institutional Research and Assessment at Augustana College, Salisbury primarily exposes the unforeseen costs of study abroad programs. Many of these costs have to do with the fact that study abroad programs have changed in format and purpose over time, and the ways in which they have changed have not been beneficial for the students.

Study abroad programs have increased in popularity significantly.  A common misconception, according to Salisbury, is that participation guarantees learning.  As programs grow and participation increases, restructuring of the programs has to happen in order to maintain the learning potential of a program.

Most programs tend to be disproportionately female and largely made up of white students, which Salisbury sees as an indication that study abroad is not an option for less prosperous students.  However, this is an area where Salisbury did not do all of his research.  There are available programs, even here at Puget Sound, that offer an international experience for the same price as a semester’s worth of tuition at your institution and which will accept preexisting merit or need-based scholarships.

Unforeseen costs aside, even Salisbury can’t deny the potential benefits of study abroad programs.  They can have an enormous impact on students’ perspective and career path, and there is an enormous amount of social capital to be gained by networking throughout your program, but these opportunities have to be taken advantage of.

Today, study abroad programs advertise cross-cultural communication skills that are extremely beneficial to students entering an increasingly globalized world.  This New York Times article discusses the opportunity cost of not studying abroad in today’s society, where bilingual is the norm and multiculturalism is the expectation.

If study abroad can provide that multicultural skill set to a student on the verge of entering today’s job market, that is a benefit that increases earning potential enormously.  However, not all programs will provide that skill set and none will unless the opportunities available are taken advantage of by the students.

So, find a program with a clearly articulated learning structure that provides opportunities for networking and an environment to develop the multicultural skills that today’s job market craves so much.  Such programs do exist; and if you find them and take advantage of all they offer, study abroad is certainly worth it.

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