University of Delaware
By S. Ismat Shah
College of Engineering

What price ignorance?

S. Ismat Shah in Paris with a Study Abroad Group

About the author: S. Ismat Shah is a professor of materials science and engineering, and physics and astronomy at UD. He is a founding fellow of the Center for Science, Ethics and Public Policy and a senior fellow of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy. His research focuses on thin films and nanostructures. He started UD’s first study abroad program in engineering in 2002 and has been conducting it every year since. The program has been to Germany, Italy, Greece, Spain, France and Turkey.

Henry M. Levin, an affiliate of the Institute for Research on Educational Finance and Governance at Stanford University, testified for the Senate Select Committee on Equal Education Opportunity that the approximately 3 billion American males who dropped out of high school since 1969 cost the U.S. government approximately $71 billion in uncollected taxes due to lower income. That is the “direct” price of ignorance.

However, this straightforward calculation misses the loss that could be associated with the auxiliary cost due to the continuation of the legacy in the families where the next generation follows the same path of ignorance. If that number is included, the loss due to uncollected taxes will increase by an additional $100 billion and will continue to increase exponentially over the years.

I mention these statistics as a preamble to my answer to the assertion that study abroad programs are by nature counter-productive since they require students to be transported across the globe. Such travel is primarily carried out via airplanes, which are one of the most polluting means of transportation.

Air travel produces 0.9 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) per passenger mile as opposed to 0.6 pounds per passenger mile in trains, although it might be a bit difficult to take a train across “the pond.” For example, a one-way plane ride from Philadelphia to London, an approximately 3,500-mile journey, could result in the emission of 3,150 pounds or approximately 1.6 tons of CO2. To offset the effect of CO2, three trees ought to be planted for each ton of CO2 emission. A Philly to London round trip will require the planting of nine trees. The average cost of a tree is approximately $40, so the cross-Atlantic trip will leave you $360 short.

If I use the example of the University of Delaware, where approximately 1,500 students go on various study abroad programs each year and travel an average 4,000 miles, and if I do the math correctly, the environmental cost will be about $324,000 each year. This is a larger number, but this number becomes insignificant in comparison to the cost of not going “there.” To know what is there, it is said, you have to go there.

The question then becomes how we measure the cost of “not going there.” I do not know how many people have experienced a study abroad program as a student or as a professor. I have been involved with UD’s study abroad program since 2001, and I cannot find words to express the value and significance of this experience. In other words, I have a biased perspective. Therefore, I will rely on the statistics provided by International Education for Students (IES), available online at The statistics are based on a survey of study abroad alumni.

I am quoting here only the lower numbers of the spread. The survey indicates that the study abroad experience increases personal development by 92 percent, intercultural development by 83 percent, career development by 57 percent and, perhaps most importantly, academic development by 80 percent.

Translating these percentages to actual dollars requires valuating these categories. If, for the sake of argument, I make them all equal value, the average increase will be 78 percent-that means a two-third increase in the value of education. A bachelor’s degree has an average value of about $45,000 per year. A two-third increase in that value, based on the study abroad experience, adds an extra $33,750 per year.

One may object that it is unreasonable to convert this experience to actual dollars, and there is some weight to that argument. The development in human compassion and understanding through cross-cultural interaction and experience is invaluable and cannot be put into this model. However, if we follow our purely economic model, for a group of 1,500 students, this translates into additional revenue of approximately $50 million a year, just for University of Delaware graduates. For critics of study abroad, this, indeed, is the price of ignorance, for just a single university in the USA.

According to the Institute of International Education’s 2012 Open Doors report, 273,996 U.S. students participated in study abroad programs during the 2010-11 academic year. Care to guess what the economic benefit of this activity is for the whole country? Yes, $9.35 billion worth….that will buy about 230 million trees. You want a compassionate, understanding, intelligent and greener USA? Send your kids on study abroad programs.

S. Ismat Shah in Paris with a Study Abroad Group