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State Regulation of Study Abroad?

May 12, 2014

The Minnesota and New York State legislatures are considering bills that would require colleges to disclose more information about their study abroad programs.

The Minnesota proposal, which has been included as a provision of the state budget bill and therefore looks likely to pass, would require colleges to disclose information about the safety records of their education abroad programs. 

Meanwhile the New York proposal, a version of which was first introduced in 2008 in the wake of Attorney General (now Governor) Andrew M. Cuomo’s investigations into alleged conflicts of interest in study abroad programs, would require colleges to disclose information about their financial relationships with study abroad providers. That bill made something of a resurgence last week, clearing the Senate Higher Education Committee, though – having not yet been voted on by the full Senate or Assembly – it has a long way to go before becoming law.

Minnesota

The Minnesota legislation would require the state’s colleges to file annual reports on student deaths and accidents and illnesses that require hospitalization. An earlier draft of the bill would also have required institutions to report incidents of sexual assault, but that provision was struck due to concerns about student privacy (if two students attend a program in Turkey and the university reports one sexual assault, the victim could be all too easily identifiable). 

Chief among the advocates for the legislation is the Minnesota-based ClearCause foundation, which calls for federal oversight of education abroad programs and laws mandating minimum study abroad safety standards. The nonprofit organization was founded by Allen and Sheryl Hill, whose teenaged son, Tyler, died while participating in a People to People exchange program in Japan.

“Sheryl came to see me about a year ago and shared the tragic story of her son’s death and shortly after that I spoke to another woman in my community who lost her son in a program and I knew of another family when my kids were in the study abroad phase of their lives, they lost a peer,” said State Senator Terri E. Bonoff, the chair of the Senate Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee and a sponsor of the legislation. 

“The one thing I didn’t want to do, I did not want to curtail students’ ability to study abroad,” said Bonoff, a Democrat. “I just want to make sure that we do all we can to provide safety. I thought that a prudent first step would be just a report. [The bill] really just says, what’s your safety record, and it has you report it on an annual basis and that data will be aggregated on the secretary of state's and the Office of Higher Education’s website.”

A statewide group of study abroad professionals was active in providing feedback on the bill.

“At first the prospect of having a law that would regulate our work was kind of scary, but after discussions with both Sen. Bonoff and Rep. [Yvonne] Selcer [the sponsor of companion legislation in the state House of Representatives], I do think that the bill now is something that most of us in the state feel pretty comfortable complying with,” said Stacey Tsantir, the director of international health, safety and compliance for the University of Minnesota’s systemwide global programs office.

“I don’t have any huge concerns,” Tsantir said. “Obviously with any legislation there are terminology clarifications that we need to make and of course it will be important for universities and colleges in the state to work with the Office of Higher Education and the secretary of state to clarify how this will work.”

“In general, I support the effort for transparency and the effort toward better collection of data around health and safety incidents that occur within study abroad,” said Jodi Malmgren, the director of international and off-campus studies at St. Olaf College.

“I think one of the challenges of the bill is that as I understand the goals of the constituents who brought this bill forward to representatives, they would like to see improvements in student safety abroad. From my perspective, reporting on data doesn’t improve safety,” Malmgren said, explaining that she thinks the things that would make students safer include improving orientations for students and for faculty study abroad leaders, ensuring students have adequate health insurance policies, and focusing resources on emergency planning.

Sheryl Hill, the co-founder of ClearCause, acknowledges that the bill doesn’t do everything she’d like to protect student safety abroad. But it is, she said, “a very good beginning.”

“I came up through the health care system where we collect data on everything,” said Elizabeth Brenner, a former nurse-midwife whose son, Thomas Plotkin, a University of Iowa student, died while studying on a National Outdoor Leadership School semester program in India. “From that data we would look for trends and make better decisions about how to provide better care in the future.”

“After my son died I was absolutely astonished to find that there’s nothing like that [in study abroad]. Nobody’s studying trends, nobody’s looking for any kinds of relationships between health and safety and the study abroad experience.” (The Forum on Education Abroad, an association that promotes standards of good practice for the field, does have a Critical Incident Database that launched last summer, but the database is young and participation by colleges is voluntary.)

Brenner said that other parents who’ve lost children on study abroad programs plan to push for similar legislation in other states. “We’re hoping we can get several states to say, 'Yes, we’re going to do this,' and then maybe we’ll finally get some attention,” she said. “Legislators are finally saying, 'Come on, it’s time to have mandatory reporting.' ”

New York

The New York bill, meanwhile, would require colleges to disclose any “perquisites” that colleges receive from study abroad programs in which their students participate, including expenses paid by study abroad providers for university employee travel, lodging, food or entertainment, as well as any “direct financial benefit realized by a college/university as a result of its students attending a particular study abroad program.”

Again, the bill can be traced back to the 2007-8 Cuomo investigations into whether study abroad offices were being unduly influenced by perks like free or subsidized overseas travel and commissions on student fees. In addition to calling for disclosure of "perquisites," the bill also stipulates that, in cases in which the university charges its regular tuition rates for a semester abroad, the university must disclose “the actual costs of the study abroad program paid by such college/university” upon request.

The sponsor of the legislation, State Sen. Kenneth P. LaValle, the chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, did not return a request for an interview. But he was quoted Tuesday in The Albany Times Union describing study abroad programs as profit centers for universities: “They work out a deal that is lower than their tuition, but the student pays normal tuition," said LaValle, a Republican. 

The practice of pricey private colleges charging their standard tuition rates for students to participate in overseas programs that may cost far less periodically comes under criticism (see this Inside Higher Ed article for a consideration of the pros and the cons of such a pricing model).

But Bruce Sillner, the dean of international programs at the State University of New York at New Paltz, said that at least as far as SUNY is concerned, students in many cases have to pay a differential fee because the cost of study abroad programs regularly exceeds the in-state tuition rate. 

“Affordability and access are tremendously important to us,” Sillner said. “We don’t try to profit from study abroad; we try to make opportunities available to students who might not otherwise be able to have them.”

Brian Whalen, the president and CEO of the Forum on Education Abroad, said the proposed legislation is in some ways consistent with provisions in the Forum’s Code of Ethics, which among other things calls for universities to be transparent about their study abroad pricing structures and which includes provisions about gifts and compensation that might be exchanged between study abroad provider organizations and universities.

Stipulations to that effect include that “Institutions and organizations should have a process for reporting payments such as reimbursements, honoraria, or consulting fees for work conducted on behalf of provider programs” and that “no paid travel should be accepted by an employee of an institution if offered by an education abroad program provider or other third party, unless substantive work, such as program assessment or program development, is required.” The code of ethics also includes guidelines for program site visits for which the study abroad provider may pay some or all of a university employee’s costs and states that “any rebate, commission, or discount provided by a provider organization should be used to defray costs to students.”

The Forum objects, however, to these practices being regulated by the government. “The difficulty, of course, when something is legislated is how will institutions comply with it, and I do caution this use of the term ‘perquisite,’ ” said Whalen, who argued that the definition in the bill was imprecise.

He also disputed the seeming assumption that the “actual cost” of a study abroad program entails the amount paid by the university to the program provider or the receiving institution, noting that there are other costs such as those sustained by the legal counsel, the registrar’s office, “all the people who are involved in trying to sustain study abroad infrastructure on the campus.”

An earlier version of Sen. LaValle’s bill passed the New York Senate in 2008, but never came up for a vote in the House.

 

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