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Recruit & Retain (Syracuse University)

Sending First-Years Away

Packing for College? Don’t forget your passport. That’s the message at an increasing number of colleges now offering semester- or year-long study-abroad programs for first-year students.

Freshman year has typically been a time of transition: settling in, navigating campus, charting an academic path. But a growing number of schools are sending students overseas in their first semester — or sooner.

Programs in Place

At Syracuse University in New York, students can start their college careers with an inaugural “Discovery” semester in Florence, Italy or Strasbourg, France. Liberal studies students at NYU can spend a full academic year studying in London, Paris or Florence. Michigan State University offers Freshman Seminars Abroad for accepted students the summer before their freshman year. Arcadia University in Glenside, PA, which developed its First-Year Study Abroad Experience 10 years ago to help alleviate a housing shortage on campus, offers freshmen a semester in London or Stirling, Scotland.

Some schools, like Florida State University, even offer financial incentives for students to study abroad in their first year. Out-of-state students who attend its freshman year abroad programs in Florence, London, Panama City or Valencia, Spain will pay in-state tuition rates when they return to Tallahassee as sophomores.

Offering study abroad to students sooner can help schools improve the quality of their applicant pool by attracting adventurous, engaged students. They also hope it will help students forge stronger bonds with each other — and their institution.

This summer, Lebanon Valley College (LVC) in Annville, PA, will offer for the first time a study-abroad program for students entering their first year of full-time study at the college. Students enrolled in “Go First!” will spend two weeks in Quebec City, Canada, studying French at École Québec Monde and earning three LVC college credits, before returning to campus for traditional orientation activities.

“Students who participate will establish relationships with a faculty member and other incoming students, thus establishing a connection to the Lebanon Valley College community prior to first semester,” says Kathleen Tacelosky, chair of the Languages department at LVC. “Further, research suggests that students who participate in pre-first-year study abroad clarify their academic and career goals and are more confident in the living and learning setting of college life.”

Tracking the Success

Students who study abroad have been shown to persist and earn degrees at higher rates than those who don’t. A 10-year study conducted by the Georgia Learning Outcomes of Students Studying Abroad Research Initiative studied the performance of students from universities in Georgia who studied abroad with similar students who completed their studies on campus. Some key findings:

  • Those students who studied abroad were more likely to graduate within four years (49.6 percent) compared to students in the control group (42.1 percent).
  • 88.7 percent of study abroad students graduated within six years versus 83.4 percent of the control group.
  • African-Americans who studied abroad experienced 31 percent higher graduation rates within four years than African-Americans in the control group.
  • There was also a greater increase in GPA for study-abroad participants (mean GPA increased from 3.24 prior to going overseas to 3.30 after) versus the control group (mean GPA increased from 3.03 to 3.06 over the same period).
  • Through pre-tests and post-tests, researchers found that study-abroad participants gained more functional knowledge of cultural practices and cultural contexts compared to those who did not study abroad.
  • Students who venture abroad received a more conceptual learning experience, allowing them to see the big picture as opposed to only the facts, as was found to be common on campus.

Safety Concerns

Allowing freshmen students — most of whom have never lived away from home — to study abroad is not without risk. Most freshman study-abroad programs include more support and supervision than similar programs for upperclassmen. Many programs are held on university-owned centers, offering university courses, taught — in English — by the university’s own faculty. But for colleges with the will and means to offer extra support to globetrotting freshman, first-year study abroad offers an opportunity to keep students engaged for their next three years on campus.

“The biggest drop-off in student retention is after the freshman year,” points out Ted South, who coordinates the freshman study abroad program at Western New England University in Springfield, MA. “Study abroad gets students jazzed. It’s a very positive experience to have your first year.”

This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of College Planning & Management.

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