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Over the last four decades, participation in postsecondary education has grown, yet degree completion rates have not risen at a proportional rate (Bound, Lovenheim & Turner, 2009; National Center for Educational Statistics, 2008; Turner, 2004) and the length of time to graduation is increasing (Tinto, 1993; Turner). At the same time, the benefits of degree completion for the individual and society are well documented (McMahon, 2009). Significant research since the 1970s explored factors related to student retention and attrition in an effort to understand and intervene in these processes. Building on Astin’s (1984) Theory of Student Involvement, Kuh and associates (2005) investigated practices and activities employed by institutions to promote student engagement using degree completion as a measure of institutional success. Study abroad is among these practices.
Using a mixed-methods approach, this study examined degree completion rates and time-to-degree for the 2002 entering cohort of first-time-in-college freshmen at The University of Texas at Austin (7,845 individuals). Rates were compared for three groups of students: students who had participated in a study abroad program (participants), students who applied but did not participate (applicants), and students who did not apply to participate or study abroad (non-participants). Applicants were included to approximate the motivational factors which may distinguish study abroad participants from non-participants.
Results indicated that study abroad participants graduated at higher rates than either applicants or non-participants, and that participation increased the predicted probability of graduating in five years by 64% and in six years by 202%. In addition, time-to-degree was slightly shorter for participants when compared to all non-participants, although the effect size was small. No significant difference existed in the predicted time-to-degree of participants and non-participants. Analyses of degree completion rates and differences in time-to-degree between participants based on program type, length, and classification at the time of participation also yielded multiple significant results. Interviews with alumni from this cohort provided greater insight into factors which influence or inhibit study abroad participation at the university.