Choose your words wisely: why study abroad needs to speak the language of employment

“Without this type of research as a foundation to measure the value of study abroad on careers, there is no basis to argue its place”

By Carrie Rackers Cunningham, director of institutional research at IES Abroad, makes the case for collecting more hard data on the link between study abroad and employability, to help practitioners speak the language of employment.

What do employers look for? We know the list: interpersonal communication, ability to work in a team, make decisions, solve problems, etc.

For college students, developing these skills and learning how to articulate them to employers requires more than sitting in a classroom. Several recent research efforts have sought to measure the relationship between undergraduate experiences and employment outcomes.

What has developed is a clear directive for students eager to have a positive employment outcome: be engaged.

As an experience that promotes engagement, study abroad should have an obvious place in this conversation. In IES’s soon to be published study of college graduates from nearly 200 universities across the US, students who studied abroad reported higher rates of full time employment and lower rates of unemployment than national levels.

“Shockingly, less than 70% of students highlighted their study abroad experience on their resume”

Additionally, 91% of students who studied abroad believed that studying abroad was effective in helping them develop confidence to deal with new job skills, and more than three quarters said the experience helped them to build adaptability, communication skills and self-confidence. Yet, shockingly, less than 70% highlighted their study abroad experience on their resume. This suggests a divide between the experience a student has abroad and their ability to articulate the skills they developed from it.

For today’s college student, cultivating themselves into the “best” applicant is second nature. These are the students who carefully groomed their applications for college – balancing courses and test scores against a portfolio of activities and personal achievements, rounded out with meticulously crafted letters of recommendation. For many, the effort to ensure admission into their first choice college began years before they took the SAT.

Thus, making the case for integrating experiences during college in order to land that dream job later should be a familiar argument for today’s undergraduates. The challenge is identifying which experiences correlate to positive employment outcomes.


“The next step is to evaluate which experiences allow for meaningful engagement”

The University of California system recently endeavored to quantify this by identifying engagement activities and examining their relationship with subsequent employment outcomes and patterns. They concluded that the more engaged a student is, the more they earn after graduation. These findings complement those of the Gallup-Purdue Index 2015, which also found engagement has a direct link to positive employment outcomes and personal well-being.

Now that this link has been established, the next step is to evaluate which experiences allow for meaningful engagement and explore how to allow more students the opportunity to have them.

This is not a new endeavor for higher education. For nearly two decades, the National Survey of Student Engagement has collected data measuring student participation in activities during college and the relationship to learning and personal development. This rich body of data identifies six High Impact Practices, including study abroad, that have “positive association with student learning and retention.” But NSSE data focuses on collegiate quality, not employment outcomes. As the number of college graduates and discussions on return on investment continue to grow, the view of how experiences impact a student is expanding to include the years beyond graduation.


“This leaves the field vulnerable to being overlooked as a valuable contributor to positive career outcomes”

Research efforts like NSSE have worked to lend focus to institutional efforts, and study abroad practitioners have followed suit — leaning strongly upon concepts of academic enrichment and learning outcomes in measuring the value of study abroad. However, their efforts and research do not incorporate outcomes specific to career and employment. This leaves the field vulnerable to being overlooked as a valuable contributor to positive career outcomes. Ensuring that study abroad earns a place on the list of meaningful experiences that impact employment will require a culture shift of how educators, administrators, and research speak about study abroad.

In a recent article, Leveraging Global Experiences in the Job Market, Charlotte West identified several examples of institutions that have developed initiatives such as the Career Integration project at the University of Minnesota, which aim to blend the divide between experience and employment. The topic is also increasing in frequency in blog posts and among professional networks and conferences throughout the field. But it cannot stop there.

Equally important to integrating career language into the vernacular of study abroad is ensuring that the field itself is producing research to support its claims of being a meaningful contributor to positive employment outcomes.

Recent efforts undertaken by organisations such as IES Abroad and IIE’s Generation Study Abroad to measure the employment outcomes of study abroad alumni are a vital step forward for the field. Without this type of research as a foundation to measure the value of study abroad on careers – and speak the language of employment – there is no basis to argue its place among engaging experiences of meaning to university leadership, policymakers, and students.