Schools scrutinize and promote study abroad
Concerns over travel 'perks' lead to a clarification of funding behind increasingly popular overseas programs.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
"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."