New survey data released Monday provides the clearest picture yet of the prevalence of potential conflicts of interest in study abroad.
An August New York Times article and a subsequent round of subpoenas from New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo focused attention on anecdotes about cozy connections between third-party study abroad providers and institutional study abroad offices that some feared could compromise the relationship between college and student. The practices that have fallen under scrutiny include study abroad officials taking “familiarization” tours of educational sites abroad at the expense of third-party providers; rebates paid by outside providers to study abroad offices, sometimes based on the volume of students participating in particular programs; and restrictions on credit transfer and aid eligibility to a list of "approved programs" that could have the effect of limiting student options and requiring them to pay higher fees.
A survey conducted in response to the newfound scrutiny by the Forum on Education Abroad, an organization that promotes a set of standards for governing study abroad and is drafting a code of ethics, offers some quantifiable findings on many of the issues raised in recent months, as well as information about the management and administration of study abroad programs more generally. The Forum’s "Survey on Program Management in Education Abroad" garnered a 36 percent response rate among the forum's 269 member institutions. The respondents to the survey -- 75 U.S. colleges and universities (47 private and 28 public), one consortium of public colleges, and 20 outside providers and host institutions abroad -- collectively manage 72,067 annual study abroad experiences, which, even considering some probable overlap, still likely represents well over a quarter of national participation. But -- it's worth noting -- the institutions represented in the survey are all somewhat self-selected, having elected to join an organization promoting high standards in education abroad. The study is currently available online for members only, but will be made fully public soon.
Among the findings:
- Colleges and outside providers most commonly share the cost of familiarization tours, a frequently used tool for making decisions about approving new programs. Seventy-one percent of respondents indicate that they sometimes or always participate in familiarization tours in which costs are shared by the provider and the college. Fifty-four percent say they sometimes or always participate in tours that the college itself finances, while 39 percent sometimes or always participate in tours paid for by the outside provider.
- Fifty percent of colleges partner with outside providers to offer specialized study abroad options.
- Forty-four percent of colleges sometimes or always negotiate fee reductions for students when determining whether to affiliate with an outside provider, with 8 percent always or sometimes tying the student discount to the volume of students that a provider serves. Thirty-eight percent sometimes or always negotiate a scholarship allowance, with 17 percent of colleges tying scholarship negotiations to student volume.
- Another 8 percent of colleges say they sometimes or always negotiate per-student rebates to support the cost of administering the study abroad office. Five of the colleges report that their office is funded in part through cost-sharing arrangements with outside providers, and among those colleges, cost-sharing arrangements make up an average of 5 percent of the total study abroad office budget. Most study abroad offices are funded primarily out of the institution’s general fund, with student fees paid by education abroad participants the second-most common source of funding.
- On the provider end, 15 percent offer rebates to affiliated institutions based on volume. Fifty-five percent offer fee reductions to students at affiliated colleges, while 25 percent tie the fee reductions to student volume. Ten percent offer funds to support study abroad office overhead, 50 percent offer representation to college faculty and staff on advisory boards and committees, and 65 percent send program representatives to campuses for visits.
- Only two of 75 responding colleges, or 3 percent, report that they have exclusive agreements with program providers limiting them from entering into relationships with other providers in a particular area (Such exclusive agreements were a major focal point of The New York Times article).
- Ninety-seven percent of colleges sometimes or always offer credit to programs administered internally, 100 percent offer credit to approved programs run by outside entities and 65 percent sometimes or always offer credit for non-approved programs (26 percent say they always do so and 39 percent sometimes).
- How students pay for study abroad varies widely. Thirty-five percent report that students pay the program directly, while at 31 percent of colleges, students pay the program fee to the college which in turn pays the program. Twenty-nine percent say that students are responsible for paying full home school tuition, but pay their own room and board abroad; 18 percent say students pay full home school tuition and fees and the institution pays for all program expenses, including room and board. Still others throw the assessment of extra study abroad program fees into the mix. This area has attracted considerable controversy, as it tends to be cheaper to directly pay for a program abroad than pay tuition for a private American college.
The survey also includes data on such topics as the evaluation of study abroad programs -- 67 percent of institutions have formal internal evaluation processes, 19 percent use external reviewers, 85 percent charge employees with reviewing programs continuously, and 3 percent don’t have an evaluation process at all -- with the wide variation in answers highlighting the fact that study abroad is very much in a transition stage as a field, at varying, but increasing, stages of professionalization (To round up the varied responses on that topic, 79 percent expect advisers and faculty to informally evaluate programs during site visits, and 24 percent use their standard campus-based course evaluation process. There were five "other" responses).
Other findings include information on who participates in site visits, direct marketing on campus, financial aid policies and study abroad, and advisory board selection and responsibilities -- the latter topic another subject of the newfound scrutiny.
"We can't get into specifics while the investigation is ongoing but in general the issues raised in the survey are relevant to and encompassed by our investigation," said Jeffrey Lerner, a spokesman for Attorney General Cuomo.
Study abroad officials have defended many of the practices that have come under legal and news media scrutiny, arguing in particular for the importance of familiarization trips in evaluating potential programs, the importance of ensuring academic quality by tying credit transfer to the institutional approval of programs and, furthermore, holding that it’s not unreasonable for program providers to offer a rebate to study abroad offices handling some of the administrative overhead. So when asked whether the survey findings could become a basis for determining best practices as the forum drafts its ethics code, Forum on Education Abroad representatives hedged a bit and stepped away from seeming prescriptive.
“Certainly part of the reason we conducted the survey was to give the standards committee some information on what practices were out there, and how common some of the practices are,” said Kim Kreutzer, chair of the forum’s data committee and associate director of the Office of International Education at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
“But I think there’s a lot of variability because institutions are so different in what they need, their philosophies are different and their missions are different.”
“I think one of the things that the survey shows is that there’s great cooperation between study abroad providers and host institutions and U.S. colleges and universities. Those relationships are very, very complex,” added Brian Whalen, the forum’s president.
“I didn’t see anything that was a major reason for concern that came out of the survey." In fact, Whalen said, "The opposite is true. It shows that the field is partnering in very fruitful, diverse, important ways, but in ways that are benefiting students." He cited, for instance, the survey’s finding that 47 percent of outside providers distribute scholarship funds to affiliated institutions for students who attend their programs, and 16 percent provide scholarship funds to be used for any program.
“[The survey] certainly put some more solid numbers onto what I think a lot of people knew intuitively was the way it was going,” said Stephen Ferst, director of study abroad at Rutgers University and chair of a “knowledge community” on education abroad coordinated through NAFSA: Association of International Educators (Ferst cautioned that he was not speaking on behalf of NAFSA).
“It’s a good contribution to the field, to a field that is a relatively nascent field in terms of research.”