Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Open Doors Data on Study Abroad

Recently, I've been looking at the Open Doors data and how we use this data when talking about study abroad participation rates in the U.S. Open Doors institutional rankings by participation rates is calculated based on the total of undergraduate degrees conferred as reported in IPEDS data (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System at the National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education) [see April 16, 2012 update note below]. Frequently, researchers, practitioners and the press state that approximately or less than 2% of U.S. students study abroad each year. My calculation for the 2003-2004 academic year is that 7% of U.S. students studied abroad based on the total number of degrees offered in the U.S. My calculations for the 2004-2005 academic year (based on estimated IPEDS data) is that 7.4% of U.S. students studied abroad. My data follows:

2003-2004 - NCES/IPEDS and Open Doors data

Total degrees awarded in U.S.: 2,711,661
Associate's = 665,301,
Bachelor's = 1,399,542
Master's = 558,940
1st Professional = 83,041
Ph.D. = 48,378

Total U.S. higher education enrollment = 16,681,877
Total U.S. students studying abroad = 191,321

U.S. Study Abroad Participation Rate Using Total U.S. Higher Education Enrollment

191,321 study abroad students / 16,681,877 higher education enrollment = 1.1% study abroad participation rate

U.S. Study Abroad Participation Rate Using Total U.S. Degrees Awarded

191,321 study abroad students / 2,711,661 degrees awarded = 7.0% study abroad participation rate

To be sure, a 7% participation rate is very low and it's debatable on the significance this 5% difference makes. I think it's important for the field to be consistent, however, in how we talk about and report participation data and since the number of U.S. students studying abroad continues to grow so does the participation rate.

Note April 16, 2012:  Earlier today I posted the following to Twitter "It is incorrect to say that only 1% of U.S. students study abroad.  The percentage is closer to 10% than to 1%.  Still low but not 1%..."  This tweet generated some retweets and some messages back asking where I come up with 10% and this "discussion" of course made me happy as I like to see/hear people engaging and thinking critically about the field!  So, I thought I would enter this update as a way to continue the debate and dialogue on data collection efforts in the field.

The reason I used NCES/IPEDS data to calculate overall study abroad participation rates [in my original post above] is because this is the data set that IIE Open Doors uses to calculate institutional participation rates.  Footnote 1 on p. 20 of the 2009 Open Doors Report states "the estimated undergraduate study abroad participation rate is calculated by dividing the undergraduate study abroad total by the number of undergraduate degrees conferred (as reported in IPEDS)".

The 2011 Open Doors "Fast Facts" [using 2011 as this data was not previously presented] provides the following breakdown:

U.S. higher education system  270,604 (U.S. Study Abroad Total)  19,805,000 (U.S. Higher Education Total)  = 1.4%
U.S. undergraduates  233,169 (U.S. Study Abroad Total) 2,452,218* (U.S. Higher Education Total) = 9.5%
U.S. undergraduates pursuing bachelor's degrees  230,752 (U.S. Study Abroad Total) 1,642,979* (U.S. Higher Education Total) = 14.0%

* Total undergraduate degrees awarded [assuming that this is NCES/IPEDS data]

To be honest, I'm not a fan of the Open Door's methodology of calculating institutional study abroad participation rates using NCES/IPEDS degree conferral data.  I don't think we get an accurate figure of institutional study abroad participation rates by using the total number of degrees granted.  If, for example, an institution sends undergraduates at all levels (freshman/first-year, sophomore/second-year, junior/third-year, senior/fourth-year and beyond) how can determine a study abroad participation rate if we divide the total of all these students by those who have their degrees conferred (seniors)?  We can, in my opinion.

This is, however, how IIE Open Doors calculates and presents participation data so this is what I used in my argument above.

Personally, I think the best way to calculate a participation rate is to take a portion [number of U.S. students who studied abroad] and divide that figure by the total [entire higher education enrollment].  This does, in fact, bring the total number of U.S. students who study abroad closer to 1%.  I think the 2011 Open Doors "Fast Facts" data could use some additional data and here is one that I think could be helpful:

233,169 (total U.S. undergraduates who studied abroad in 2009/10) ÷ 17,565,300 (total undergraduate enrollment in the U.S. in 2009) = 1.3%.

Above are various thoughts and configurations of how to think about, calculate and present study abroad participation numbers.

What are your thoughts?


  1. I think it is time to recalculate with the most current data as I continue to see organizations talk in terms of only 1% of U.S. students study abroad.

  2. That is very interesting. We base our rate on degrees awarded and are close to 20% for a small school. This of course, includes short-term as well as semester programs. I wonder why they look at total enrollment, especially since a large number of students drop after the first year and obviously don't make it to graduation. It does make much more sense to base it on graduation unless you expect study abroad students to not graduate but we have already seen that underrepresented populations (which tend to be the ones that have a higher risk of not graduating) don't study abroad in as high of numbers. Very interesting!! This would make what the Simon Act is asking for not seem quite so far of a reach as well!!

  3. Maybe we can add in a definition for participation in the Forum Glossary? This could be a first step to helping to bring about that consistency that you are calling for. Great discussion David!

  4. From the Study Abroad Participation Rates part (p. 127) of the Methodology Section of the 2009 Open Doors Report:

    "The undergraduate participation rate is a proxy estimate of the proportion of students in two-or four-year cohort that go through a study abroad experience at least once during their academic careers. Undergraduate completions data from the U.S. Department of Education's Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) are used to calculate the undergraduate participation rate. The participation rate is calculated by dividing the total number of undergraduates who studied abroad in a given year (as reported in the Study Abroad Survey) by the total number of undergraduate completions (from IPEDS). Due to various factors, such as students studying abroad more than once, students dropping out before graduation (non-completions) and differing cohort sizes from year to year, participation rates may exceed 100 percent. The IPEDS data used lags one year behind the Open Doors data because the corresponding year is typically not available at the time of analysis. A national study abroad participation rate has also been calculated using the same methodology since 2006/07.