Study abroad, as a component of the academic curriculum within higher education, has increased nearly threefold in the past 20 years (Dwyer, 2004).1 As a result, the types and number of program offerings have also become much more numerous and varied. Programs differ not only in location, but also in length, curricular focus, language of instruction, extra-curricular involvement, academic setting, student accommodations, and in many other ways. In addition, there are many types of providers of study abroad: foreign institutions offering direct enrollment to U.S. students, one-to-one exchange programs between U.S. and foreign institutions, programs run by individual institutions solely for their own students, large institutionally managed programs open to students from any institution, and hundreds of professionally managed programs run by for-profit study-abroad organizations. The ways in which programs differ have become so numerous and varied that it has become difficult for administrators and students to know which programs best suit particular academic or personal goals.
Answering the “which program is best” question requires an understanding of the reasons why students enroll in study-abroad programs. The reasons are legion: from a public policy perspective the rationale can be to better prepare people to compete in a global economy; from an educational perspective it can be to develop particular knowledge (e.g., language competence) or expertise (e.g., regional political dynamics); and from a student perspective it can be to prepare for life after college, develop new knowledge and expertise, and/or have an interesting adventure and break from regular college classes. Regardless of the rationale, study abroad has become a part of undergraduate education that students expect to experience. Additionally, more and more institutions are adopting study-abroad components as a requirement for graduation.
Because students, faculty, and administrators all value study abroad as a vital component of education, and resources expended continue to grow, institutions need effective ways to assess the educational outcomes associated with the programs their students choose. Although institutions routinely administer post-study-abroad evaluation instruments, the methods used are typically student reports of satisfaction with the experience. Little attention is paid to program design and specific learning outcomes; in particular, the relationship between program design and learning outcome is virtually unexplored.