Study Abroad Under Scrutiny

August 14, 2007

A New York Times article suggesting that decisions in study abroad offices could be influenced by perks similar to those that have clouded ties between colleges and private lenders inspired mixed reactions among international educators Monday. But even those who took issue with some aspects of the article said that they saw the scrutiny -- and the transparency it could potentially help bring about -- as more essential than ever as the American study abroad market continues to grow.

“Anything that becomes this big and will become even bigger should be subject to careful review,” said M. Peter McPherson, president of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges and chairman of the federal Commission on the Abraham Lincoln Study Abroad Fellowship Program, which called in a recent report for a quintupling of study abroad participation to 1 million within a decade. “My experience is that almost any place in the society and economy as things grow and they grow fast, transparency is helpful.”

The New York Times article -- which had climbed to the top of the newspaper’s “most e-mailed” story list by late Monday afternoon -- highlights a number of potential conflicts of interest in the relationships between college education abroad officials and third-party study abroad providers, including “free and subsidized travel overseas for officials, back-office services to defray operating expenses, stipends to market the programs to students, unpaid membership on advisory councils and boards, and even cash bonuses and commissions on student-paid fees.”

“If individual schools are making deals on the basis of special offers like that, and if the assumption is that the provider is going to be able to monopolize a market, or expect something in return, there are reasons to be concerned about relations like that,” Eric Lund, director of international and off-campus studies at St. Olaf College, the leader in study abroad participation among baccalaureate institutions, said in an interview in response to the Times article Monday. “It raises questions about ethical standards ... in our field if some arrangements like this are going on.”

Although the majority of college students studying abroad -- about 72 percent, according to the Institute of International Education -- study through programs offered by their own institutions, at least 28 percent of the approximately 206,000 Americans who study abroad go through outside programs that can be subject to such conflicts. These outside programs may play an even bigger role in the future as colleges pursue the Lincoln Commission’s goal not only of sending more students abroad, but also of sending them to a more diverse array of places outside of Western Europe -- where, as McPherson pointed out, staffing needs may be more intensive and beyond the reach of most universities, and a critical mass of participating students from one college may be more difficult to come by.

Like financial aid officers, study abroad staff and their institutions have an interest in validating a certain number of these outside offerings as preferred providers -- not only to sift through the overwhelming number of options for their students’ sake but also to maintain the integrity of the home institution offering credit for academic work completed abroad. But how those approved academic programs abroad are chosen -- and whether they always are selected for academic, price and safety reasons alone -- has come under scrutiny as the restriction of choice has led, the Times reports, to students being shortchanged of legitimate (and sometimes cheaper) opportunities abroad by colleges that refuse to grant credit for courses completed outside of their network.

“Critics say that these and similar arrangements, which are seldom disclosed, typically limit student options and drive up prices for gaining international credentials,” the reporter, Diana Jean Schemo, writes.

When asked about the article Monday, many in international education strongly defended (in industry parlance) “familiarization trips” -- international travel intended to enable college officials to evaluate a program where students earn credit abroad -- as necessary to ensuring quality. “We’re in a field that depends on those familiarization tours as long as they’re seen and they’re done in an ethical way that’s benefiting the students and that’s fully transparent and no one is benefiting in a way that is separate from making sure the students are participating and learning from the best possible programs,” said Brian Whalen, president and chief executive officer of the Forum on Education Abroad, a group of 250 colleges that has created standards of good practice for study abroad programs.

Whalen’s long list of caveats -- “as long as they’re seen and they’re done in an ethical way that’s benefiting the students and that’s fully transparent and no one is benefiting in a way that is separate from making sure the students are participating and learning from the best possible programs” -- is suggestive of the complexity undergirding the study abroad world’s response to the practices described in the Times article more generally. The reactions to the various "perks" run the gamut: Some international educators condemned agreements in which colleges get “cash back” for students enrolled in study abroad programs outright.

Others said they were acceptable and even beneficial for cash-strapped study abroad offices so long as they're disclosed to students. Some, like Rutgers University's Stephen Ferst, chair of a national "knowledge community" on education abroad coordinated through NAFSA: Association of International Educators, were skeptical of the parallel to this spring and summer's student loan industry scandals. “I don’t think," added James Gehlhar, a special assistant in the office of the provost at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and the chair-elect of the same NAFSA committee, that "many universities are swayed by the types of things the article mentions."

Yet, regardless of their views of the various practices described, almost everyone pointed to transparency and disclosure as a necessary antidote to conflict of interest concerns in study abroad and higher education generally.

“Disclosure is really the key issue,” said Peggy Blumenthal, executive vice president of the Institute of International Education. “It’s really the realization -- and maybe schools are not always as quick to come to this as they need to be -- that today we just need to disclose all of our ties that we have with business providers. And that’s true, ever since the new accounting rules for for-profit companies and now, increasingly, for not-for-profit companies. You’re expected to disclose.”

The market for attracting American study abroad students continues to intensify: A recent walk around the “Expo hall” at this summer’s NAFSA conference in Minneapolis was a feast for the senses, with study abroad providers from all over the world competing for the attention of campus directors. “You get lots of calls as a director of study abroad, [from] people hawking their wares,” said Ross Lewin, director of study abroad at the University of Connecticut. While Lewin generally felt the Times article was unfair in its portrayal of college study abroad offices and akin to a "fishing" expedition, he too added a caveat to his own criticism. “Again, don’t get me wrong. If you try to get a million students abroad, which is the goal of the U.S. government, and you’re growing, study abroad is going to get commercialized.”

“When you go commercial, you can have problems. There’s no doubt about it, but I think there are a lot of people trying to make some good ethical decisions,” Lewin said, adding that there are many third-party providers offering excellent service that are needed if the country wants to reach its goal of drastically increasing study abroad participation. “We’re professionalizing, and with professionalization comes great responsibilities.”

Another point worth noting, as the pressure for study abroad offices to send more students overseas continues to mount, is that “study abroad has never, except in very few places, been an activity which is fully funded by higher education institutions," said Norman Peterson, vice provost for international education at Montana State University.

He said that he doesn’t see a problem with a large outside provider sending money back to a college to help administer the institution’s overhead relative to that particular program, as “educational institutions have not traditionally offered that funding" themselves. (Although he and others again stressed transparency and the need for institutions to shed light on their policies: to be able to defend them as ultimately being in the best interests of students who, in this case at least, would be taking advantage of administrative support).

“There’s a comparatively small amount of central university funding that goes to support study abroad programs…. Here at Montana State, when we offer study abroad programs, we’ve got to make those things pay off. I think there’s inherently nothing wrong with that, but it does open the door for, I suppose you’d say, ‘inappropriate practices,' ” Peterson said.

There’s a “larger issue,” said Whalen of the Forum for Education Abroad, “about colleges and universities needing to take stock of how much study abroad needs to be invested in.”

More immediately though, Jaime Kapitulnik, provost at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Rothberg International School, said he was dismayed Monday to read about the influence the intermediates seem to be wielding. “When I read this morning that some universities actually are involved in, I would say, unethical schemes with commercial firms, I was astonished. I couldn’t believe it,” he said while acknowledging that he'd read just one side of the story. "[Study abroad] cannot be transformed into a business, because if it is, then the whole concept of study abroad is lost.”

“I hope," he said, "the universities will use this as an opportunity to say in a clear way that this is not how they do business.”

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