Legal Test of Study Abroad Fee Structure

In challenge to billing practice popular with colleges, Massachusetts lawyer takes on Wheaton's policy of charging full institutional tuition and fees for students overseas.
February 12, 2008

On Friday, a lawyer and parent filed suit against Wheaton College, in Massachusetts, challenging its policy of charging full institutional tuition and fees for students studying abroad -- often on significantly cheaper programs -- as “unlawful and deceptive.” The lawyer is asking for a declaratory judgment that he hopes will clear the way for other students and families to seek reimbursement.

The suit represents a direct confrontation of a widespread practice that some in the field say will only become more common as education abroad is increasingly integrated into the curriculum. In fact, those contacted Monday largely defended an anticipated spread of the practice, arguing that charging full college tuition and fees is necessary to extend institutional financial aid to overseas study and invest in expanding the college’s quality control and advising infrastructure.

In a lawsuit filed in Attleboro District Court, James P. Brady charges that Wheaton’s bill came to $4,439 over the cost of the program in South Africa that his daughter, who graduated in January, attended last spring. The Vermont-based School for International Training (SIT) managed the South Africa program.

On its Web site, Wheaton says that all students attending Wheaton programs -- including “Wheaton With SIT Abroad,” through which students can choose from among more than thirty of the third-party education abroad provider’s offerings -- must pay the Wheaton comprehensive fee, currently $22,762.50 per semester. While, as this resource from NAFSA: Association of International Educators makes clear, the Higher Education Act stipulates that study abroad program fees are eligible for federal financial aid, Wheaton also extends its institutional need and merit scholarships to students abroad on Wheaton-approved programs. Students on these programs are guaranteed Wheaton credit for courses completed, while those who study on non-approved programs must petition for credit on a case-by-case basis, a spokesman explained.

In the complaint, however, Brady alleges that Wheaton's designation of SIT as a "Wheaton program" is misleading.

“Wheaton provided absolutely nothing in the way of any services to SIT. They provided no teaching, no housing, no food, no medical insurance, no transportation, no books. They’re completely divorced from SIT ... they didn’t review courses my daughter took,” Brady said in an interview. He added that his daughter had one advising session with a Wheaton study abroad official and that he would have been happy to pay a nominal study abroad fee up to $500 for overhead costs (the amount Wheaton charges students who attend non-approved programs).

“I said to Wheaton, 'Why don’t I simply pay SIT directly for everything?' They said if I did that, my daughter could not receive any credit for studying with SIT. They’re basically bullying parents and students and they’re in a power position to do that. By the time you go overseas, you’re usually a junior, you’re committed to Wheaton College, your educational experience is linked to the school, and you’re already numbed by the staggering bills you’re receiving from them,” Brady said.

“This is what we lawyers call a contract of adhesion. It’s a classic principle of contract law, where one party is in an inferior bargaining position, where you really don’t have any choice, any real choice, but to accept the deal that’s thrust upon you.”

Wheaton’s assistant vice president for communications, Michael Graca, said that the college’s policies regarding study abroad fees are clearly outlined and consistent with overall tuition policies. “We don’t charge students based on the number of courses they enroll in; nor which courses they enroll in…. A literature survey course may not cost as much to offer as an advanced science class, but we don’t distinguish.”

Also, Graca stressed that the college’s Center for Global Education offers support services that go beyond the cost of the actual overseas program and that students can apply their institutional aid to their programs abroad. According to Wheaton's written policies, paying the college's comprehensive fee covers the cost of an approved study abroad program's tuition and fees, round-trip airfare from a designated gateway city, an International Student Identity Card, and, though it varies by program, housing and meals. Students cover passport and visa fees, transportation to and from the gateway city for the group flight, study abroad insurance, local transportation, personal travel, and, in the case of some approved programs, room and board.

But unrest about such tuition policies -- called “price gouging” by Brady -- has been a consistent undercurrent of the recent scrutiny of study abroad policies and practices. An October survey of members of the Forum on Education Abroad found that while the most common financial model (at 35 percent of colleges) is for students to pay the cost of the program directly, a wide variety of payment structures are in place. For example, at 29 percent of colleges surveyed, students pay full home college tuition and their own room and board for the program; at 18 percent, students pay full home tuition and fees and the institution pays all program expenses, including room and board. Thirty percent of colleges charge an administrative fee over and above any other charges to benefit the education abroad office; 21 percent charge an administrative fee that benefits some other on-campus office.

While developing ethical guidelines for the field -- still an ongoing process -- forum members stressed the importance of transparency, said Brian Whalen, president of the group. "We didn't want to dictate a specific way that colleges and universities should set study abroad fees."

But if anything, Whalen said it doesn’t seem that colleges are shying away from charging full tuition and fees for study abroad amid the scrutiny, but instead are more likely to look toward it as they prioritize study abroad as an essential educational endeavor. “What I see happening is institutions focusing more on the development of their study abroad programs and study abroad offices. That’s I think all to the good. But it costs money to do that,” Whalen said.

Speaking more broadly and not specifically on the Wheaton case, other international education administrators echoed the argument that charging full tuition and fees promotes study abroad's integration into the campus and, ultimately, access. Uliana Gabara, dean of international education at the University of Richmond, said the parallels with on-campus financial aid are striking. “Presumably parents could sue and say Johnny is paying three times as much or 50 percent more than Suzie, because my Johnny doesn’t get any financial aid. Why am I paying more?” said Gabara. “But the issue is one of creating a student body for everybody’s benefit.”

“The move toward charging your own tuition but offering financial aid is a move toward integrating study abroad into the educational process and standards of the given institution,” she said, adding that the funding mechanism opens all study abroad programs, not only the cheapest ones, to students on aid. “When we did not have this kind of thought-through system [on the home campus] and any student could essentially go anywhere, they didn’t go anywhere. Because the great majority of students want that integration into their home institutions. They want to know what their professors will think and how this will fit into their political science major.”

“What I see happening is a return to a consumerist mentality,” added Joseph Brockington, associate provost for international programs at Kalamazoo College. “Higher education from a university no longer becomes a coherent whole, but it’s sort of an a la carte conglomeration of different programs and experiences.”

But another leader in the study abroad field, William Brustein, associate provost for international affairs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said that while he can see both sides of the argument, colleges are ultimately in the business of eliminating all hurdles for study abroad and should be flexible – and should not, he said, punish students who take the initiative to enroll in programs on their own, without university support, by charging them higher home institution tuition.

“What is the ultimate objective? That is to be able to provide as many opportunities as possible for students to get these high-quality learning experiences and to remove as many of the obstacles, whether the obstacles are curricular or financial,” said Brustein (who emphasized that he was speaking not in his capacity as current president of the Association of International Education Administrators, but as an individual professional).

Rather than look to students abroad to make up the money colleges lose by not having them sitting in an on-campus classroom and sleeping in a dorm for a semester, Brustein said that colleges need to be creative about strategic enrollment management. “If you’re sending 300 students on yearlong study abroad each, so you know you’re going to have 300 seats, try to see how you can manage your enrollment each year, whether through transfer students or through increased enrollment at the beginning. There are ways to get the money.”

“There’s truly no clear-cut solution here, but my sense is again, if a goal is to enhance study abroad, then we should do everything to remove the disincentives and improve the incentives.”


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