Almost 5 million students are pursuing a degree at a university located outside their home country. Over the last four years I’ve helped about fifty of them, and I’m in awe of the investment that students and their families make: in deciding where to apply, preparing themselves for admission, doing the applications, and of course in tuition. For one family it can be hundreds of thousands of dollars. Global spend on higher education abroad could run to $50-100 billion. For many students and families, it’s an article of faith that going to university abroad will transform their life chances. A whole ecosystem of international recruitment and admissions service providers have grown up to serve the market, ranging from thousands of individual counselors to unicorns (companies valued over $1b) like ApplyBoard, which matches students with universities.
But as far as I can tell—and I looked pretty hard—we don’t know much about how things turn out for students who go to university abroad. Does doing a degree abroad gets you a better education (more learning, better skills)? A more extensive network? More career success (more options, more income)? Greater career or life satisfaction? Data on these questions is elusive. But given how much time and money are involved, students, families, universities, and the companies that support them would or should be demanding some facts.
Relying on new data available from LinkedIn’s enormous global datasets, we can start to provide some of those facts. We gathered almost 10,000 LinkedIn data points on almost 250 randomly selected students from around the world who did an undergraduate degree abroad at a top global university. In summary, I find that these graduates go on in huge numbers to lucrative roles in business or professional services, even if they study a social science or arts & humanities subject – and that they jumpstart their careers through international jobs and graduate education, but are likely to return to their home country. Read on if you want to geek out on this little bit.
Don’t we already know that going abroad to a top university is worth it?
For lots of people involved in international education—as students or institutions—the conceptual case for studying abroad is compelling. Lots of people, myself included, believe intuitively that those who go abroad realize a range of benefits, among them greater independence and resilience, improved cognitive skills such as critical thinking, improved language skills and intercultural competencies, a multinational professional network, and, crucially, the credential value of a degree from a foreign / world-class university. And there are plenty of factoids about the impact of doing a degree abroad. (Example: 570 current or former heads of government first came to the US as international students.)
The big claims for studying abroad are entirely plausible. A generation ago, it might have seemed obvious that if you could gain admission and afford it, getting a degree abroad was worth it. The gap between the best universities in the US and UK (not to mention Canada, Australia, Germany, etc.) and those in many countries was huge, in terms of resources, research excellence, teaching methods, and internationalism. When Shanghai Jiao Tong University produced the first global university ranking in 2003, China’s top university—Tsinghua—placed in the 201-250 range. Last year it had moved all the way up to 29th. Now six Chinese universities are now among the Times Higher Education’s global top 100, and 17 countries are represented.
The rise of these upstarts into the top rank of global universities reflects not only the volume of world-class research they’re pumping out, but also the vastly expanded resources they command, a more international faculty and student body, and modern pedagogical approaches. It also reflects the higher esteem in which they’re held by academics and employers. The best universities in China and South Korea, and to a lesser extent other countries in Asia and Latin America, are now regarded as competitive with strong universities (if not quite the very best) in the West.
Global university rankings directly or indirectly reflect both these substantive improvements and the enhanced reputations that have come with them. So if you believe the rankings (and most families put great stock in them, even though universities themselves love to hate them), these days it’s not so obvious that a strong student is better served by going abroad than by staying home to attend a top university in their own country. Are the sacrifices made by all the students I work with, and millions of others, to go to a top university abroad worth it?
New data and the questions it helps us address
LinkedIn is the world’s biggest professional social media network, with 722 million members worldwide, 76% of whom are outside the US. Most have created publicly viewable profiles that include details on their higher education and career history. Some people also include their secondary school. Using the Recruiter search tool (an extra-cost featurfe), you can find people who fit a certain profile: for example, people who did their undergraduate degree abroad at a top 100 university. This doesn’t allow us to assess any added value of going abroad, but it does give us a detailed picture of the career, education and location trajectories of people who did study abroad. To my knowledge, the picture this reveals hasn’t been put together before. So as a start, I gathered almost 10,000 LinkedIn data points on hundreds of international graduates from top universities, providing some initial insights on these questions:
We gathered data from LinkedIn for 243 people from all over the world who did an undergraduate degree at a top global university after having completed secondary school in another country. (A “top” university is defined as one currently ranked in the Times Higher Education top 100.) More than 1 in 3 completed their degree at least ten years ago (graduating by 2011), and are now in the middle of their careers. They are likely to have completed graduate school, if they were going to attend, and many are in their third or fourth job, often at a senior level. Another 1 in 2 completed their degree at least five years ago but less than ten years ago. These people are often in graduate school after undertaking their first post-university job, or are now starting companies or entering midlevel roles. The last group (about 1 in 8) graduated 2-4 years ago.
Half of the group completed a domestic secondary school curriculum such as India’s ISC or CBSE; the other half did an international qualification such as the International Baccalaureate or one designed to prepare students for university in the US/UK.
Undergraduate degrees: lots of US and other top universities and a balanced distribution of fields
Ninety-six students went to the US for their undergraduate degree, while 39 went to the UK and 33 to Canada. The other 75 did their undergraduate study in Australia (20), Singapore (13) or one of 11 other countries such as Japan, Switzerland, or Germany (42).
More than a third of the sample (82 of 243) studied at a global top 25 university, with multiple students from Oxford, Cambridge, UC Berkeley, Yale, Princeton, Chicago, Imperial College London, Johns Hopkins, Penn, UCL, Columbia, Toronto, Cornell, Duke, Michigan, Peking, Northwestern, and the National University of Singapore. Other universities most represented in our sample were McGill, Bristol, Tokyo, Manchester, McMaster, USC, Warwick, and the University of British Columbia (UBC).
Social sciences (especially economics), STEM, and business were the most popular undergraduate fields of study for people in our sample. Eighty-five studied social science other than law; 83 studied a STEM (science, technology, engineering or mathematics) field, including 40 engineers; 67 studied business; 22 studied arts & humanities; and 11 studied law. (Some did a double major or otherwise studied multiple fields.) Many families of international students are keen for them to study a field they believe will lead to a good job. This data shows that many students at top universities study more academic subjects.
Graduate degrees: half have gone on to further study, usually at another top university and often in a different field
About half (132) went on to a postgraduate degree, often not in the same country they did their undergraduate studies. Almost all (90%) of these were Master’s degrees (PhDs may be underrepresented on LinkedIn, as academics don’t use it as much). Half of the postgraduate degrees were in Business with the other half distributed among Engineering, STEM fields, Social Science, Law, and Humanities. (Because LinkedIn use is somewhat higher among higher-income professions, pre-professional degrees are likely a bit over-represented.)
Many students switched fields to do their Master’s degree. In particular, only 26% of the students who did a graduate business degree studied business as an undergraduate; most studied a more “academic” social science or STEM field. About half of the students who did graduate work in engineering, and 2/3 of those who did graduate work in other STEM fields, studied it as an undergrad. These graduates show us that an undergraduate degree needn’t restrict your ability to go into a different (and often more professionally-oriented) field via graduate school.
The internationalism of these students continued in graduate school. About 1/3 of students with a postgraduate degree did that degree in the country of their undergraduate degree; the other 2/3 did postgraduate education in another country (often not their country of origin). More than 25 countries were represented. About 2/3 of students also attended a top 100 university for their postgraduate studies; about 1/3 attended a top 25 university.
Students who attended a top 25 university for undergraduate were much more likely also to attend a top 25 university for graduate school. 65% of people who did their undergraduate degree at a top 25 university and then went on to get a graduate degree did so from another top 25 institution. Of those who attended a somewhat lower-ranked university for undergraduate, 25% went to a top 25 university for graduate school. People from top 25 undergraduate universities were also somewhat more likely to go to graduate school: 40% compared to 33% of those whose undergraduate institution was ranked 26-100.
Career: most are on a lucrative path in the business world, regardless of what they studied as an undergraduate
Here’s a striking finding: two in three of those in our sample are currently in just three lucrative fields: business management (34%), banking/finance (19%), or consulting (14%). The popularity of these professions shows both how heavily they recruit from top universities and how intent many top university graduates are on a lucrative career.
Students have gone into these business/quantitative fields regardless of major: almost the same proportion of the subgroup who studied social science and/or humanities (but not business or STEM) are currently in them. Goldman Sachs is happy to hire English majors -- as long as they come from a top university.
At the same time, these international students scatter into a wide variety of sectors. A meaningful number of graduates also went into research/academia, government/public service, law, engineering/IT, media, and financial analysis. The subset who graduated from top 25 universities were more likely to go into consulting, engineering/IT, or law. (In the US, about 40% of Ivy League graduates as a whole go into consulting or banking). Those from universities ranked 26-100 were more likely to go into research/academia, public service, or media.
The group has also been impressively successful and entrepreneurial. Even though 2/3 of the sample finished university less than ten years ago, almost 1 in 4 are in senior management roles now (56 of 231). Students who attended top 25 universities for undergraduate were slightly less likely to be in senior management roles. Almost 10% (21 of 240) became entrepreneurs and founded a company.
Well-known firms the graduates have worked for include:
Location: most have moved back to their home region or country
If you’re a parent of a prospective international student worrying that your child will never come home, these data provide some comfort. Just over half (52%) of our sample have since returned to their home country. Another group (about 1 in 4) moved back to the region (East Asia, South Asia, etc.). Fully 6 in 7 East Asia students are now back in the region, presumably reflecting the vigorous economic opportunities there. By contrast, less than 1 in 10 (9%) are still in the country in which they did their undergraduate degree.
However, about one in three graduates stayed in the country where they studied to get their first job, launching their careers through a work visa. These international work experiences, often for a multinational company, were doubtless valuable to many in securing good positions (or the chance to start their own company) back in their home country.
This is a first step. To really understand the impact of going abroad would require some serious social science: comparing a representative sample of international graduates with a control group who stayed domestic, but were otherwise similar. This is the only way to know how outcomes for international students compare to what would have happened had they chosen to go to university in their home country instead. The data is tricky but I have an idea about how to get after it. Drop me a note if you’re interested, or if you have any reflections or questions about the analysis thus far.