Schools scrutinize and promote study abroad

Concerns over travel 'perks' lead to a clarification of funding behind increasingly popular overseas programs.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The student-loan scandals earlier this year have sent forth a ripple-effect of scrutiny for other areas where colleges, outside organizations, students, and money intersect.

Study abroad is one of them. Professionals in the field are eager to ease concerns raised last month by The New York Times and the New York State attorney general's office about possible conflicts of interest. The resulting discussion opens a window onto the complexities of managing students' trips overseas, as well as broader issues emerging as study abroad matures. Universities should better define the academic purpose of international study, some say, and make it feasible for more students to fit quality experiences into their curriculum.

In 2004-05, 206,000 American students studied abroad, an increase of 8 percent over the previous year, according to the Open Doors 2006 report by the Institute of International Education, a nonprofit in New York. Over a decade, study abroad grew by 144 percent.

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"When you have something growing as fast as study abroad has been ... what you're going to have is a lot of different decisions made by different schools sort of on the fly ... and it's probably a good time to step back and ... try to clarify some of the guidelines," says Victor Johnson, associate executive director for public policy at NAFSA: Association of International Educators in Washington.

The pace of growth is expected to pick up even more as the perception mounts that cross-cultural skills will be key to future job prospects and the strength of the nation. Congress is taking up the issue with the Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Foundation Act of 2007, which passed in the House this summer and has been introduced in the Senate. It would promote the goal of 1 million US students earning academic credit abroad annually within 10 years. It would also encourage forays into nontraditional destinations, particularly in developing countries.

Response to claims of 'perks'

In August, The New York Times reported that study abroad companies and nonprofit organizations offer colleges "perks" for signing up students, ranging from free trips for officials to back-office services to membership on advisory councils. A few days later, New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo's office opened an inquiry to see if such practices limit students' study abroad options and drive up prices.

In response, study abroad professionals and college staff offered explanations of their management practices, and picked up the pace on self-examination that had already been under way in recent years. Acknowledging that more transparency would help, and that some changes might be necessary in individual arrangements between schools and study abroad providers, they also vigorously argued against the characterization of their practices as "perks."

"I think this is going to blow over," says Gregg Kvistad, Provost of the University of Denver, where more than 50 percent of students do some study abroad. After senior staff examined the school's policies in recent weeks, he says he's confident they are on solid ground. It's important for colleges to verify the quality of third-party providers, Mr. Kvistad says, but without them, "there is no way that an institution could do the job we'd like to do for all our students studying in these dozens of countries."

The Forum on Education Abroad, which represents colleges and providers that account for about 75 percent of US study abroad, had already approved a set of standards in July and had planned an upcoming ethics conference.

"We welcome scrutiny," says Forum president Brian Whalen. "What's key in all of this is transparency.... People are realizing it's important for everyone in the field to explain what the business practices are ... so students and parents understand them."

When it comes to offers of free trips to let study abroad advisers check out a provider's offerings, it's generally been an accepted practice, because it's seen as a way for them to become familiar with the quality of housing, academics, and other aspects of a program. But "it's not appropriate," says Mr. Johnson of NAFSA, "to have a quid pro quo whereby you agree to use a program in exchange for a trip."

NAFSA organized a task force to look at management issues in the wake of the Times reporting.

"These are hardly junkets," adds Geoffrey Bannister, president of Cultural Experiences Abroad, a for-profit provider in Tempe, Ariz. "These are people schlepping around, sharing rooms...." But to remove the perception that it's a perk, he says, it's good that some organizations that had tied staff trips to the number of students going on their programs have now changed that policy.

Tufts University in Medford, Mass., decided in the wake of the student-loan controversy last spring to no longer accept business travel paid for by outside companies. This also applies to overseas trips by its study-abroad adviser – not because previous subsidized trips were improper, officials said, but simply to guard against any appearance of impropriety.

For students, one of the most common complaints is that it's difficult to know whether they'll be able to transfer credits to their home campus, says Allan Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education.

"It's really important for every college to have a foreign policy and every student to have a passport," Mr. Goodman says. "[Among] colleges and universities ... not all of them have looked at what they want to achieve through internationalization, where they want their students to go, ... where it fits in the ... curriculum." So far, he estimates about 100 colleges are committed to a more comprehensive approach.

Benefits of overseas programs

University of Denver is one. Its Cherrington Global Scholars program enables juniors and seniors to study abroad for a quarter at the same cost as studying in Denver, and to use their financial aid. "We work with students before they leave to ensure that the range of courses ... would count toward graduation," Kvistad says.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts is another place where study abroad is the norm. "Most of our students study engineering or science – which are areas in which it's traditionally difficult to do study abroad because the curricula have so many requirements – so we've adopted our own curriculum," says Richard Vaz, dean of interdisciplinary and global studies.

WPI set up 25 project centers around the world where students do research projects or work on everyday problems with professors in small teams. More than half the students go abroad for two- to three-month trips.

Jenn Moseley, a WPI senior, went all the way to Namibia on her first trip outside the United States. She answers questions from students as they mill around the annual Global Opportunities Fair at the school, picking up pamphlets and gazing at the occasional teapot or didgeridoo. Ms. Moseley helped with statistical analysis to improve tourism and the economy, while others on her team worked on water issues. "Doing something that important to the people ... kind of opens your eyes to what you can do," Moseley says. She'll be earning a fire engineering master's degree and can envision returning to Namibia for a year or two.

"A lot of kids came here because of the global program," says WPI sophomore Sabrina Varanelli. She's considering a trip to London or Morocco to study the history of technology. After a brief stop at the financial aid table, she lines up for a free passport photo. "I really like the way WPI integrates it into the curriculum – it makes it so easy for you to be able to go away, and you actually get credit," she says.

Tips for planning to study abroad

1. Define your goals.

If you are still selecting which college to attend, ask admissions officers about study abroad policies: Does the school offer both long and short trips? Can you apply your financial aid to the program? If you are already in college, talk with advisers about what kind of international experience would be the best fit, and when would be the best time to go given your other educational goals.

2. Search the Internet

Two helpful websites are operated by the nonprofit Institute of International Education: www.iiepassport.org, which allows you to search for programs by country, area of study, and language; and www.StudyAbroadFunding.org, where you can search for scholarships and grants. Another good resource is the directory site www.StudyAbroad.com. Read about students' experiences as they travel at the affiliated site, www.BlogAbroad.com.

Be sure to vet what you find online with the study abroad office on campus. Staff there should be able to raise any red flags.

3. Take a close look at any program's academic standards.

Find out in advance from your college or university what the criteria are for transferring credit from a program abroad.

4. Examine costs.

Two programs might look like they're vastly different in price, but one may list all the costs and the other may charge extra for things like books and excursions.

5. Quiz the program providers.

The Forum on Education Abroad offers a set of questions you can ask about an organization's policies and standards on their website (www.forumea.org – click on the "standards" tab at the top and then again on the left). The many topics include preparation before travel, safety, financial aid, and ethics policies.

Sources: Allan Goodman, president of the nonprofit Institute of International Education; Geoffrey Bannister, president of Cultural Experiences Abroad; Victor Johnson, associate executive director for public policy at NAFSA: Association of International Educators; Brian Whalen, president and CEO of the Forum on Education Abroad.

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