Guarding the Hen House

Stories about colleges in New York and North Dakota highlight the lack of independent authority overseeing the quality of universities’ efforts abroad.

February 14, 2012

(Editor's note: This article has been corrected from a previous version, which attributed to Mitch Leventhal quotes that were made by Marjorie Lavin. We apologize for the error. )

It was not a good weekend for international higher education.

An audit released Friday by the state of North Dakota found that poor record-keeping and a lack of oversight at Dickinson State University resulted in hundreds of foreign students – mostly from China – receiving degrees despite not having completed required coursework. The university was accused of ignoring basic standards, making false promises to potential students, and failing to monitor the progress of students on campus and once they left.

Two days later, The New York Times ran a piece about an Albanian university operating in partnership with Empire State College, an institution in the State University of New York System, raising questions about the quality oversight at a foreign college through which students could earn Empire State degrees. Students at the University of New York Tirana could pay extra to receive an Empire State degree, despite what the Times found to be a tenuous connection between the two institutions.

While the two stories vary in severity – the Dickinson State case involves a formal audit by the state that found wrongdoing, while The New York Times story found no legal wrongdoing -- experts who study the internationalization of higher education say the two cases raise the same questions: At a time when more and more colleges and universities are pursuing international activities, how does one ensure quality thousands of miles away from the main campus? Whose job is it to ensure the quality of international programs? Are states, accrediting agencies, the federal government, or institutions really equipped to ensure the quality of institutions halfway around the globe?

“No state college oversight agency or accrediting body in the U.S. is really prepared to evaluate these kinds of agreements,” said Alan Contreras, former administrator of the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization, a unit of the Oregon Student Assistance Commission. “And I don’t mean to dump on accreditors; the fact is states can’t handle this kind of thing either.”

Experts such as Contreras suggest that the current structure of U.S. higher education oversight, a combination of state oversight, and regional accrediting bodies, is not equipped (or motivated) to ensure the quality of programs universities are offering abroad or efforts to recruit international students, leaving it to institutions -- who often, but might not always, have the best intentions -- to ensure the quality of their own programs.

The question about how to oversee such efforts has become more pressing in the past decade, as the pace of international efforts by American colleges and universities has increased dramatically. These efforts have ranged from an increase in recruiting international students to universities in the U.S., to partnerships with institutions abroad, to full-fledged campuses abroad, such as the one operated by New York University in Abu Dhabi.

“Internationalization is hot, and institutions all want to be involved,” said Philip G. Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College. “And very often they don’t know what they’re doing. They sort of just jump in with the best of intentions but no knowledge of a very slippery terrain.” Even institutions with significant resources, such as Duke University, have run into problems working abroad, and it's a fallacy to think it can be done without a significant investment of resources, he said.

Altbach said much of the international push made by institutions – particularly public universities and non-elite privates – in the past few years has been driven by profit. State universities need new sources of revenue as state funding levels decrease, and non-elite privates need more students who can pay the full cost of attendance. At most of these institutions, international students pay the full sticker price (and sometimes even more) and no not receive state or institutional aid.

Mitch Leventhal, vice chancellor for global affairs of the SUNY system, said in July that the system was moving ahead with an aggressive international recruitment effort, a major goal of which was to increase the revenue from international students.

Marjorie Lavin, vice provost for academic program development at Empire State, said making money was not the focus behind the partnership with the University of New York Tirana, the Albanian institution that was the focus of the Times's story. “The budget model for our international programs is a break-even model. They cover our costs, and some costs in the central office,” she said. “We don’t see this as a cash cow supporting other parts of the institution.”

She said one major reason for the partnership in Albania and other European countries was to give faculty members an opportunity for development and international exposure. Empire State College officials said the internationalization efforts are also designed to give U.S. students exposure to students from other countries, though the vast majority of students in New York have very little interaction with students in Tirana. Representatives from the Tirana institution could not be reached by deadline.

A Black Hole of Oversight

Contreras, Altbach, and other international higher education researchers all said accreditors lack the resources to monitor these programs, and often lack the incentive because only a handful of American students attend them. States also have little incentive because these international programs do not serve state residents.

That leaves it up to institutions to monitor their own quality, which can sometimes be problematic, particularly when they do not have significant financial resources. “There is no way to oversee and evaluate this kind of operation without a vast amount of money, but everyone wants to do it on the cheap,” Contreras said.

Both Empire State and Dickinson State lack the financial resources to make a full-scale international push the way places such as New York University and Duke University have done in recent years, nor do they have the kind of international reputation that would draw international students to the campus.

The Albanian partnership is one of several Empire State has with a group that operates colleges in the Czech Republic, Greece, and Serbia. Empire State also has a few partnerships with institutions in Latin America.

Lavin said there are several measures the college has to ensure these programs' quality. The college has an international programs office to oversee all its efforts abroad. A full-time European coordinator, based in Prague, visits each campus once a semester with a faculty curriculum committee. And she said there is a full-time Empire College employee on-site in Tirana. Lavin said the European coordinator and campus administrator are in daily contact.

Empire College officials directly hire faculty members to teach classes at the University of New York Tirana, and Lavin said they meet the same standards as faculty members in New York. The Times, which sent a reporter to the campus in Tirana, found that the faculty did not meet the quality of what one might expect at a U.S. university. "Of 15 Empire State courses offered in the autumn 2011 catalogue, only three appear to be taught by instructors with doctorates," the paper wrote. The college’s European coordinator also meets with faculty members being considered to teach at the university and can make recommendations, Lavin said.

Under the agreement Empire College made with the University of New York Tirana, students can take 96 hours offered by the University of New York Tirana. Their final 32 hours must be courses offered by Empire College. That is the same structure of the degree in the United States: The college accepts up to 96 hours of credit from all transferring students, and 32 credits must be taken at Empire College. The college is designed to serve adult students rather than "traditional" 18-year-old students.

Lavin said the college relies on accreditation bodies in host countries to ensure the quality of their partner institutions. But the standards of such agencies may not be the same as those of regional accreditors in the United States. “You have to look at what are the standards imposed by the foreign country on providers coming from somewhere else,” Contreras said. “They are quite substantial in some places, and they’re pretty much absent in others.”

Contreras said he would like to see a specialized accreditation system set up for international campuses and partnerships, since they are dealing with a different set of issues and on a different scale than domestic. “The regionals are not designed to do that kind of thing,” he said. “They don’t have the budgets or the staffing.”

The SUNY system is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. Under accreditation rules, the Tirana campus qualifies as an “other instructional site,” which are not typically visited by accrediting agencies. So long as institutions don’t offer half the credit necessary for a degree, they fall into that category, which could include setups such as the one in Tirana or educational facilities located in Long Island.

Lavin said a degree from the University of New York Tirana that has been approved by Empire State College is as good a degree as one from the institution. Students interviewed by the Times gave the program mixed reviews. While they noted that they were satisfied by how the degree helped them advance their careers, they noted that it lacked some of the rigor one might expect of an American university.

'A Vulnerable Population'

The Dickinson State case raises a different set of issues – including oversight of the institution’s management in North Dakota. But it also touches on how to monitor the activities of recruiters abroad and the university’s acceptance of international students.

The program that was the target of the state's audit offered Dickinson State degrees to international students, who were typically required to do coursework in their home countries, spend a year at Dickinson, and then return to their home countries to complete their degrees. The audit found that the university did not get completed transcripts for many students after they left the campus in North Dakota.

According to the state’s audit, Dickinson ignored two language tests generally considered a good measure of students’ proficiency in English in favor of a different test, accepted students without proper documentation, and fabricated transcripts. It also noted that contracted recruiters in China passed themselves off as Dickinson State employees and often told students lies about what would be acceptable under the program.

The international agent issue has been raised in the recruiting world, where college admission counselors have begun to raise objection to paid international recruiters, who are compensated on commission, a practice outlawed when recruiting students in the United States. The National Association for College Admissions Counseling proposed a policy to bar the use of commission-based agents to recruit international students. But the association backed off the plan, and is now in the process of developing a new policy.

Jason Lane, a professor at SUNY-Albany who studies international higher education, said that even when international students get on campus, they need a certain level of protection.

“International students are a vulnerable populations,” he said. “They are easy to take advantage of in the sense that they don’t know their rights and responsibilities. And they are not as likely to raise concerns they have, because they are not nationals. They are worried about whether they can stay here or not if they object too much.”

The international push in some ways mirrors efforts with online education, the researchers said. Institutions are pushing them as a way to generate new revenues or keep costs down for the main demographic of students, but are increasingly finding that to do either well takes heavy investment.


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