Digest No. 09 - September 2021

Study Abroad Leads to Volunteering beyond College

Mitic, R. 2020. “Global Learning for Local Serving: Establishing the Links between Study Abroad and Post-College Volunteering.” Research in Higher Education 61: 603–627.


Does participation in undergraduate study abroad experiences lead to post-college volunteer service? Drawing on information provided through careful analysis of data from the Education Longitudinal Study 2002–2012, the author designed and executed a study that unequivocally established this connection. In short, participation in study abroad is strongly associated with volunteering beyond college. This relationship holds even after controlling for a host of demographic covariates, such as race and gender, as well as volunteer-related behaviors, such as high school and college volunteering. The author argues that more students should study abroad.


The author used an interesting approach to his research question as he situated the importance of the study in human capital and status attainment theories. Taken together, these theories suggest that post-college voting is one of the “non-market benefits” (p. 607) of participating in higher education and a phenomenon that can be explored thoughtfully from pre-college, to during-college, to after-college. These frameworks lay the foundation for his longitudinal analysis of the national dataset.

The author uses a quasi-experimental design to examine participation in study abroad and its relationship to post-college voting. In his investigation of 8,460 undergraduate students, he found that students who studied abroad were 26 percent more likely to volunteer after college than their peers who did not study abroad. This result included a strong list of controls, including sex, race/ethnicity, first-generation status, family income, parental nativity, parental involvement, social capital, high school grade point average, SAT composite score, frequency of family day vacations or day trips, high school volunteering, institutional control, selectivity, major, college grade point average, participation in community-based or service-learning projects, and whether the student volunteered in college. Given these controls, the longitudinal nature of the data, the strength of the data source, and the rigor of the analysis, there is ample evidence to conclude that college students who study abroad are significantly more likely to vote after college. In addition, the author discovered that students who participate in a community-based project were twice as likely to volunteer after college, even after controlling for other characteristics and experiences. Finally, students who volunteered in college were 96 percent more likely to volunteer after college.


How do we get college graduates to vote? Can increasing the probability of voting help justify the high costs of higher education? While there are no simple answers to these questions, linking higher education and embedded practices (such as study abroad) to democratic behaviors like voting may be a good place to start the conversation. In addition, efforts should be made to disassociate study abroad from a general perception that only the wealthiest students can participate due to the financial costs of traveling abroad, the social costs of leaving friends behind for a semester, and the family costs of being unable to fulfill work and other responsibilities.

Now that we have evidence that study abroad is tied to future volunteerism, the question turns to “what can we do with this information?” We have known that service-learning and other volunteer opportunities in college are a good way to instill civic values in our undergraduates, but is leaving the country truly necessary, given the costs? In essence, study abroad is one tool in the civic education toolbox. Although sometimes it does take leaving the country to push a student out of her or his comfort zone and to experience the human condition outside of familiar contexts and narratives, it is not the only option. Colleges and universities can help students learn more about cultural differences and make informed decisions during the admissions process, campus and college orientations, first-year seminars, and in the classroom.

The fact that only about 10 percent of U.S. undergraduates study abroad, and that this number heavily favors students from white, upper/middle class, humanities and social science majors, begs the question of how we can ensure that the educational benefits of study abroad are more equitably distributed. Intentional efforts are necessary to target students on Pell Grants (and to counteract the myth that students with Pell Grants cannot study abroad) as well as community college transfer students and students from racial minority groups. On this last point, having more study abroad options in Africa, Latin America, and Asia can be a good first step in developing options that may leave students facing less racism than might be experienced in more traditional locales in Western Europe. CIC institutions could lead the way by establishing memoranda of understanding with institutional leadership in these regions that have more staying power than traditional faculty-led exchange agreements.

About the Author

Radomir Mitic is a postdoctoral researcher at the Council of Graduate Schools.

Literature Readers May Wish to Consult

Hurtado, S., and L. DeAngelo. 2012. “Linking Diversity and Civic-Minded Practices with Student Outcomes: New Evidence from National Surveys.” Liberal Education 98 (2): 14–23.

McMahon, W. 2009. Higher Learning, Greater Good: The Private and Social Benefits of Higher Education. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Rhee, B., and A. Kim. 2011. “Collegiate Influences on the Civic Values of Undergraduate Students in the U.S. Revisited.” Asia Pacific Education Review 12 (3): 345–362.