The New York attorney general's investigation of study abroad has formally expanded beyond major companies in the field to universities. Alfred University acknowledged Friday that it had received a subpoena. And an aide to Andrew M. Cuomo told The New York Times that such information requests had been sent to 15 colleges, including Brown, Columbia, Cornell and Harvard Universities. While many colleges were unavailable to talk about the inquiries, Alfred’s acknowledgement of the subpoena nonetheless marks the first palatable and public sign in months that the attorney general’s investigation is alive. And, instructively, that it in fact might be following the pattern of Cuomo’s earlier investigation into conflicts of interest in financial aid offices, moving from entities that work with many colleges to the colleges themselves.
The study abroad investigation began this summer in the aftermath of high-profile allegations that study abroad office staffers could be unduly influenced by perks like free or subsidized “familiarization” trips to study sites abroad or commissions on student fees. In an interview Friday, Sue Goetschius, director of communications at Alfred, said that Cuomo’s office asked for an extensive list of documents relative to Alfred’s relationships with outside providers. Among the lines of inquiry: Which programs Alfred approves and how many students attend each one, and what the budgets are.
Alfred, a private, 2,300-student university in New York, has just a two-person international programs office (a director and support professional). The university’s list of affiliated providers is long and not necessarily instructive in terms of which relationships the attorney general’s office might be especially interested in learning more about. Affiliates include the American Institute for Foreign Study, Arcadia University Center for Education Abroad, AustraLearn, the Institute for Study Abroad-Butler University, Central College Abroad, Cultural Experiences Abroad, the Council on International Educational Exchange, the Danish Institute for Study Abroad, Junior Year in Munich through Wayne State University, the Studio Arts Center International, the Santa Reparata International School of Art, the School for Field Studies and the School for International Training. A number of those entities were included in the attorney general’s earlier two rounds of subpoenas of major study abroad providers.
But up until now, no college has publicly acknowledged receiving a subpoena (outside of those that run large-scale study abroad operations extending beyond their own students). Goetschius said she did not know why Alfred had received the subpoena.
Regardless, the pattern of this investigation might be mimicking Cuomo's high-profile inquiry into last year’s student lending scandal. Then, too, Cuomo began by identifying questionable practices among the outside providers – the loan companies in that case – before singling out colleges possibly involved. Following his announced intention to sue one lender, Education Finance Partners -- and after he named in a press release a dozen of the colleges the company maintained relationships with -- a number of colleges agreed to settle with the attorney general’s office and end practices like “revenue sharing agreements” with lenders (called “kick-backs” for the colleges by Cuomo).
Comparatively, in the study abroad investigation, Cuomo’s office issued a series of subpoenas to major study abroad providers in August and September, months before news broke that a college had received a subpoena. Officials at three of those providers contacted Friday -- the Institute for Study Abroad-Butler University, the School for International Training, and Arcadia University’s Center for Education Abroad -- all either said that investigations into their practices were ongoing or that they have not heard anything further from Cuomo’s office since sending the documents subpoenaed. (All three are among Alfred's affiliated providers).
“The folks who work in education abroad are a fairly small and tight-knit community, really,” said David Larsen, vice president of Arcadia University and director of the Center for Education Abroad. He said he was “very surprised” to hear Alfred’s news and that Cuomo’s investigation of Arcadia’s practices is still ongoing.
“We all know each other. And, speaking for myself, I’m wondering what’s going on, as far as the New York Attorney General’s investigation is concerned. We’ve put our efforts and energies recently into working with a number of other colleagues on the code of ethics that’s being drafted by the Forum on Education Abroad.” (A draft copy is now available on the Forum’s Web site for members of the organization, which promotes good practices in study abroad).
Asked if he was worried that the attorney general’s office could be scrutinizing Alfred’s relationship with Arcadia, Larsen said no. “We don’t believe that we have acted in any way that would be regarded as unethical or out of line at Arcadia. And having said that, I hope that’s the way the investigation comes out.”