November 15, 2010
Yes, there are rankings for Study Abroad: each year, the Institute for International Education prepares a report called Open Doors that tabulates data about Study Abroad. This year, among baccalaureate institutions, Earlham comes in at number 18 measured by the percentage of students we send on study abroad.
Here are the top 20: Goucher College, Centre College, Taylor University, Austin College, Saint Olaf College, Randolph-Macon College, Hartwick College, Goshen College, Wofford College, Luther College, Lewis and Clark College, Colorado College, Carleton College, Davidson College, Oberlin, College, Kalamazoo College, Messiah College, Earlham College, Saint Lawrence University, and Hobart and William Smith Colleges.
Note what a different list this is than the lists that are regularly produced for college rankings. Yes, some institutions that regularly make the top 50 for U.S. News and World Report are here (Colorado College, Carleton, Oberlin, for example), but but some are institutions that never make the top 100. Is it noteworthy that these “top 20” are more likely to be in the middle of the countrty geographically than on the coasts? More likely to be in small towns or cities thanm in large metropolitan areas? Perhaps.
But does this list make sense? Do we really understand anything more clearly having seen this list? Yes and no, I think. Study abroad does have something to do with student learning: the experience itself is generally quite fruitful for students, and they draw on the experience for years thereafter.
On the other hand, the list itself tells us only about the frequency of study abroad, and nothing about quality. How long was the experience: a few weeks only or a semester or a year? How much did the the experience include real engagement with another culture: a stay with a family? a service project with an organization? Did it involve speaking a language other than English? (England remains the top study abroad country.) There is nothing in these data that tells you that.
At Earlham, we emphasize semester-long off-campus study, urge students to make use of the second language we expect them to learn, and almost always include some strong engagement with the host culture (not just a classroom and tourism abroad) as part of the experience. Also noteworthy: about 16% of our students (a very high percentage in relative terms) come from homes outside the U.S.; to a degree, their education at Earlham IS their study abroad. Unlike some colleges with higher percentages of study abroad, we do not require the experience.
It is also interesting to me that IIE produces three lists, one each for baccalaureate institutions, master’s institutions and doctoral institutions. But why separate like that? All the lists pertain only to undergraduate students. Should we think it harder or easier for institutions that also award masters or doctoral degrees to send students abroad?
Were we to make only one list, Earlham would slip to #23: Arcadia, Lee, Elon and the Univ. of Dallas all have higher percentages of students studying abroad. Those are all master’s institutions; none of the doctoral institutions exceeds our 73.4% for 2008-09.
So finally, note this: smaller institutions, on the whole, do better at delivering a study abroad experience for their students This is one more data point on behalf of the proposition that in higher education, a student is likely to get a broader, more varied experience at a smaller college, even though that seems counter-intuitive.