The Middlemen of Study Abroad

New scrutiny raises questions, beyond the legal ones, of why some colleges rely on third parties to send students to other countries.
August 20, 2007

With the newfound scrutiny on the ties binding college study abroad offices and outside organizations, and whether these relationships are ethical or even legal, a broader question has also emerged: Leaving aside questions of monetary incentives and junkets, why do colleges use these entities in the first place?

“The phenomenon is not very well-understood,” says Robert A. Pastor, vice president of international affairs at American University. “A lot of universities turn to them because they don’t have the capacity internally, nor the desire to invest in creating their own study abroad programs.”

“So they use these third-party providers to give their students the option.”

Experts in international education from across the United States defend their reliance upon outside study abroad providers for expanding the number of options available to students without necessarily requiring large investments on the part of colleges – arguably more critical considerations now than ever as higher education continues marching toward its goal of quintupling study abroad participation to 1 million within a decade. Up until now, these outside providers have been perceived as valuable, even essential partners in that endeavor, with few questions asked.

But a recent New York Times article highlighting the perks some are offering to forge relationships with colleges and, ultimately, recruit and register their students -- including “free and subsidized travel overseas for [study abroad] 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” – has New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo (of student loan scandal fame) asking some questions in the form of subpoenas. And the scrutiny has shed new light on the role these third-party providers play – what services they offer, when and why colleges rely on them, and when and why they don’t.

'American Intermediaries'

“Historically speaking … several third-party providers actually pioneered study abroad for a lot of institutions,” says James Gehlhar, a special assistant in the office of the provost at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and chair-elect of a national “knowledge community” on education abroad coordinated through NAFSA: Association of International Educators. “That is, there are a lot of institutions that had never really thought about study abroad or had nobody designated to assist with study abroad.”

“So a number of third-party providers back then [20 to 30 years ago] would cater to smaller colleges and universities, either to provide them with their first study abroad programs or to really broaden their palette.”

Outside providers vary dramatically in terms of the services they offer. Some, like the Danish Institute for Study Abroad, offer their own programs, with their own courses and curricular expectations. Others, like the Institute for the International Education of Students (IES) and the Arcadia University Center for Education Abroad, offer some of their own programs, but also are known for acting as intermediaries -- offering student services, plus a quality control stamp, for those students enrolling in foreign universities who want more of a cushion than what's available when they directly enroll through international student offices abroad. (All three of those non-profit organizations were among those that received subpoenas last week from Cuomo's office, which was busy earlier this year investigating college ties to for-profit lenders).

Colleges have taken very different approaches to their relationships with these outside providers, says 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. Some that have made strong investments in study abroad have done so largely through working with provider organizations, while others have preferred to either establish a large number of their own programs or directly work with universities abroad. “It’s complex,” says Whalen, “in terms of where a college or university should put its resources.”

Indeed, a complicated picture is emerging: As the emphasis on study abroad grows, many point out that the reliance on these outside providers will only increase. In particular, students typically have tons of ways to study in Europe, through programs led by their own university's faculty or direct enrollment in colleges throughout the continent. But the focus is shifting to send more students to the developing world, where it can be difficult for colleges to obtain the critical mass of students necessary to offer their own programs. Direct enrollment also may seem to be a less feasible option in many cases, for any number of reasons related to infrastructure, safety and support, and gaps in language and cultural understanding. Several study abroad directors say that while they see the value in these outside providers, they use them strategically – and, in one case, less and less as institutional efforts expand.

“We tend to use third-party providers when they can offer something we don’t offer, such as field studies,” says Elizabeth Brewer, director of international education at Beloit College. Outside organizations are increasingly offering hybrid programs, she points out, where they supplement university coursework abroad with other classes (including in language), volunteer work, or internship opportunities. Although she adds that the lines are increasingly blurring. Beloit too is feeling the pressure to add these extra opportunities to its own programs -- for instance, the addition of a lab experience for students taking courses in foreign institutions through any combination of contracting with local instructors, distance education and faculty advising back at Beloit.

Pastor, of American University, says that when he arrived at the institution in 2002, AU relied heavily on outside study abroad providers. In moving away from enclave, or “island” programs (in which students study with other Americans on American campuses abroad), and increasing the number of students studying overseas (by 77 percent since 2003, Pastor says), American University increased its own number of offerings from 13 to 105. Most of those programs are not led by AU faculty, but instead are partnerships with universities abroad where AU students can directly enroll, says Pastor.

“The main reason,” he says to explain the decreased reliance on outside providers, "is I didn’t want an American intermediary. I wanted to make sure that our students would be directly incorporated into the local setting.”

“As I looked at the providers, a lot of them were for all American students. They would group American students; they would group them into certain programs."

Opportunities and Costs

“One of the problems with some of the discussions that go on in the study abroad field about the merit of direct enrollment versus other types of programs is that there tends to be a thought among some people that one size fits all. I think that’s where the error is,” says Gayly Opem, executive vice president of institutional relations and marketing for IES, which offers about 75 programs in more than 30 locations (including programs involving enrollment in foreign universities with support services, “hybrid” programs in which students might take Hindi while studying at an Indian university, for example, and customized programs).

“To argue that one type of program is the right type and the only type, particularly if it’s made on the basis of price, is not necessarily a very thoughtful way to evaluate a program," Opem says.

The outside providers like IES and Arcadia's Center for Education Abroad that act as intermediaries in some cases – offering orientation, support services, field trips, cultural activities and, when it’s all said and done, transcripts that ease credit transfer for students who enroll through them in universities abroad – offer all these extra services, of course, at an extra cost.

It’s always more expensive to study at a university abroad through Arcadia, for instance, which has in-country staff, than it would be to directly enroll, says David Larsen, vice president at Arcadia and director of the Center for Education Abroad there. “Although we try to negotiate favorable fees from the receiving institutions, we’re never able to cover all of our costs so we can make study abroad at an overseas institution cost exactly the same as direct enrollment,” Larsen says.

To take a couple examples, tuition costs $4,000 for students who directly enroll in the University of Cape Town for a semester. Students going through Arcadia pay $9,000 (and take a core seminar in addition to their university coursework). Non-European Union students directly enrolling in Ireland's Trinity College can expect to pay from about 14,500 to 19,000 Euro (depending on what they study) for tuition -- at current exchange rates about $19,500 to $26,600 for an academic year. The Arcadia program charges a flat tuition rate for studying at Trinity -- $25,860. (Arcadia also guarantees housing, which costs $8,540 extra).

“You pay a premium for going through Arcadia, but we’re adding value to that experience as well," says Larsen. "That is what we keep explaining to students and parents and advisers – that they need to make a decision about whether the value that we’re providing is worth the difference in price.”

“We do not use Arcadia, IES, IFSA Butler [the Institute for Study Abroad at Butler University, which also is under the microscope] – they’re too expensive,” says Joseph Brockington, associate provost for international programs at Kalamazoo College and interim dean for experiential education.

At Kalamazoo, where about 82 percent of students from each graduating class study abroad, “We want to know our partners well,” says Brockington. In direct relationships with universities around the world, Kalamazoo fosters connections with international offices so that students can directly enroll and faculty can take advantage of exchange opportunities. “The only thing that a small liberal arts college can really sell that distinguishes it from a large university is the quality of its relationships,” Brockington says. “I want a rich, multi-layered relationship.”

Although Brockington relies on outside providers that offer their own, customized academic programs abroad, he only uses one provider to support students enrolling in foreign universities – and again, that decision was made strategically. With a surge in would-be study abroad participants in 2000, many of them Spanish-speaking, “I needed another Spanish-language program in a hurry." He contacted the Council for International Educational Exchange (CIEE) about a program in Chile, and says that for the handful of students he sends there each year, paying extra for the services CIEE can offer was “worth the value.”

“That’s what a third-party provider did for us – it expanded our opportunities,” says Brockington, who acknowledges that not every study abroad office has the hundreds of thousands of dollars he can spend maintaining his direct relationships with universities abroad -- which goes back to the question of sometimes limited university investments in study abroad offices raised by international educators in the wake of the New York Times article last week.

“For a small study abroad office," says Brockington, "in the context of a college or university that wants to expand the horizons of its students, expand the openings for study abroad, especially in the developing world.....a third-party provider makes it happen.”


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