This Too Shall Pass… And We Can Prepare

Group of four students walking alongside water and boats with a bridge in the background

by Leah Mason, IIE Research Lead

At the start of each academic year, my colleagues on the Open Doors team and I get a little nervous and a lot excited as the survey administration begins for the annual collection of U.S. study abroad data. Inside we’re all hoping to see that more U.S. students leveraged the power of international education by learning overseas as part of their academic studies.

In the 2018/19 academic year, more than 442,000 U.S. students participated in learning overseas (IIE, 2020). This number has climbed steadily for several decades, in part due to efforts by U.S. higher education institutions to create a wide range of opportunities for students to study abroad through international partnerships and access to funding.

And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit – calling into question when students might be able to study abroad again and whether or not they actually would go when the opportunity arises.

For most international education professionals like myself, the value of study abroad is undeniable. And for most of us, our work is not just a job – it is a passion. Our own international experiences propelled us into the field to share what we know was a transformative experience in our lives. In an era of accountability and data management, when institutions’ financial resources are uncertain, as is the pathway forward for sending students overseas again, the need to articulate and demonstrate the value of international education is more important than ever before.

The Impact of International Education

The Consortium for the Analysis of Student Success through International Education (CASSIE) project, led by the University System of Georgia in coordination with IIE and funded by the U.S. Department of Education, International and Foreign Language Education Office, does just that – it shows the positive impact of international education experiences on student success outcomes. The project, pulling an incredible depth of data from 36 universities across the United States, accomplishes this feat in multiple areas.

Study Abroad

The findings show that students who studied abroad had higher 6- and 4- year graduation rates and higher GPAs at graduation than their peers who did not study abroad (Bell et al., 2020). The findings also show a subgroup analysis highlighting the positive impact of study abroad for need-based students, underrepresented minorities, first-generation students, and STEM majors.

These unique and powerful analyses are possible because the institutions that are part of the CASSIE project collected and stored a tremendous amount of detailed data on their students for the duration of their enrollment at the institution.

In fact, the data provides a look at the impact of international education experiences in varied forms and includes the study of world languages, in addition to study abroad.

World Languages

With nearly 3 percent of the student body in the CASSIE data majoring in a world language such as Spanish, French, or German language and literature, this small subgroup is important for several reasons. Many world language majors are required or strongly encouraged to participate in study abroad to fulfill their degree requirements. Nearly half of world language majors from CASSIE institutions studied abroad. And all too often, those of us involved in international education hear concerns from students and parents that a study abroad experience will add time to graduation. I imagine this may have been a concern for the world language majors from CASSIE institutions, of whom more than 70% co-majored in another field of study – yet another activity that seems likely to add time to graduation. This proportion is significant when compared to their non-world language major peers, of whom fewer than 20% co-majored in another field of study. The CASSIE analysis reveals that students who major in a world language had higher 6- and 4- year graduate rates, and higher GPA at graduation compared to their non-world language major peers.

The opportunity to conduct an analysis that creates matches between students with similar characteristics with the depth of data used by the CASSIE team, and across so many institutions, is rare. And while this data set allowed the CASSIE team to show the positive impact of study abroad and study of a world language on student success outcomes, there are still other areas of international education for which an impact analysis would be welcome.

Title VI

For example, U.S. higher education institutions that host language and area studies programs funded through Title VI of the Higher Education Act1 have long supported overseas learning and sought to demonstrate the benefits of language and area studies on program graduates. Imagine if every Title VI funded institution could apply a code to courses that were established using Title VI funds through their registration systems? Or if an established internal survey asking students about international education activities could also pull out those who were funded by Title VI programs? How could a learning overseas advisory group work together with Title VI center directors to identify areas of mutual benefit for collecting and using data?

So while we may not see students learning overseas today, we know they will travel in the future. As international educators, it is our responsibility (and might I even go so far as to say, secret mission) to prepare for their departure by doing a check on data collection systems and processes. Setting up the systems you need now, will allow your institution to demonstrate the impact of international education on your campus.


Note: The Consortium for Analysis of Student Success through International Education (CASSIE) is led by the University System of Georgia in coordination with the Institute of International Education and funded by the U.S. Department of Education, International and Foreign Language Education Office.

Bell, A., Benson, K., Bhatt, R., Hodges, L., Rubin, D. & Shiflet, C. (2020). CASSIE Study
Abroad Analyses and Infographics. University System of Georgia.

Institute of International Education. (2020). “U.S. Study Abroad for Academic Credit Trends,
1989/90 – 2018/19.” Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange.