With accountability a buzzword in the air, it’s only natural that study abroad programs might soon come under stricter scrutiny, compelled to pony up data and dossiers for policing of some sort. A largely unregulated industry that’s experienced rapid growth in recent years, study abroad programs are ripe for quality control mechanisms, said Brian J. Whalen, president and chief executive officer of The Forum on Education Abroad , an organization representing about 250 institutions that is beginning a voluntary, standards- and mission-based self-study and external evaluation review process this coming year that looks something like accreditation.
“We’re in a field with a lot of committed, optimistic people who really believe in international education. We’re also in a field with a cost of entry that has decreased markedly in the last 10 years,” Michael Steinberg, executive vice president and director of academic programs for the Institute for the International Education of Students and chair of the forum’s standards committee, said Wednesday during a session at the annual NAFSA: Association of International Educators conference in Minneapolis .
“If you’ve got some computer skills, you can put up a Web site, you can print out things cheaply, you can hire a 24-year-old to run a program, and contract with a university abroad set up to make money," said Steinberg -- adding that while some universities are very discerning about what programs they work with, others are decidedly less so.
“Before others start to police us, we have to police ourselves,” Steinberg said. “That is partially what this project is all about.”
The Forum on Education Abroad, a five-year-old group based at Dickinson College, in Pennsylvania, began its work by soliciting the advice of hundreds of international educators to establish standards of good practice  and related queries meant to apply broadly to a variety of credit-bearing study abroad programs. The standards cover ethics, mission, academic framework, organizational and program resources, student selection and code of conduct, student learning, the learning environment, and health and safety.
Examples of the queries, available online , include “Do opportunities exist for students to interact with persons of different backgrounds?" (under the student learning umbrella), “Does the organization clearly define expected outcomes?" (related to mission) and “Do program facilities, classrooms, offices, home stays, excursions and field trips meet home country safety standards as closely as possible?” (under the health and safety standard, of course). The Forum also offers a toolkit to member institutions describing best practices relative to these standards.
After receiving recognition as a Standards Development Organization for the study abroad field by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission in 2005, the forum moved forward with a pilot project  in which institutions -- including Pennsylvania State University, the School for International Training and Syracuse University -- volunteered to engage in a comprehensive review of their implementation of the standards.
Now, starting in fall 2007, forum members will be eligible to apply to participate in the Quality Improvement Program Review, in which institutions engage in the voluntary self-study and peer review process -- guided, Whalen said, by an institution’s mission, philosophies, goals and definitions of education abroad (and supportive of an institution's own quality assurance measures, unlike accreditation). It’s not a compliance or accreditation process, Whalen stressed, though “it certainly assists very nicely in an accreditation self-study or strategic planning.”
In the long run, a stamp of approval by the forum could “separate those that do adhere to essential standards and those that do not,” Michael Woolf, president of the Foundation for International Education -- which participated in the pilot -- said at Wednesday’s NAFSA session.
“It is timely. It seems to me that in the history of study abroad, we’ve moved through a number of developmental stages,” Woolf said: the pioneering stage, the cooperation stage and now the competition stage. In addition to encouraging good practices, Woolf praised the system as a process whereby study abroad institutions, particularly stand-alone entities not embedded within a university, can gain credibility and, therefore, some marketing value.
But it’s that push for a one-size-fits-all stamp of approval that Chris Deegan, director of the study abroad office at the University of Illinois at Chicago, had some reservations about. Although generally expressing support for the initiative and indicating that he believes it will ultimately benefit the field of international education, he added his hesitation that because the study abroad field is so unregulated right now, the process "could be used in a way that won’t move us forward.”
There will come a day years from now, he said, when people will realize that all institutions with the forum stamp of approval aren’t created equal in terms of quality -- but in the meantime, because few people understand the nuance of the study abroad world, many could interpret a successful journey through the forum review process in ways they shouldn’t.
So far, about 20 institutions have expressed interest in undergoing a review through the Quality Improvement Program, and about half of those have applied, Whalen said. The first group of peer reviewers went through training just this week, and a review panel, to consist of seven senior officials who will review the documentation, is set to be appointed within the next several weeks.