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Does Business Have a Place In Study Abroad?

The subpoenas issued this summer to five private organizations that offer study abroad programs were surprising. Prompted by articles in The New York Times, the attorney general of New York announced there would be an investigation into business practices that included payoffs, gifts and relations described as “cozy.” The implication was that college and universities were the true beneficiaries, not the students who had to attend only those study abroad programs that were sanctioned by their home institutions.

International education is an expensive endeavor for any campus. Whether recruiting, receiving and providing services to international students and scholars; initiating and maintaining linkages with universities abroad; expanding language or area studies; or allowing financial aid to travel with students who study abroad — all require a vigorous, sustained effort and the commitment of precious resources. Neither the commitment nor the resources can be squandered.

Because of the expense, partnerships are vital between colleges and universities and private organizations that provide international services. The recent recommendation to Congress by the Commission on the Abraham Lincoln Study Abroad Fellowship Program to send a million students abroad over 10 years put study abroad at the level of national policy. As this important initiative is being discussed in Congress and across the country, the business practices of partner organizations have come into question.

It is estimated that half of the approximately 200,000 students that studied abroad in 2004-2005 did so through independent study abroad organizations. With less than 1 percent of the 14 million students studying abroad for academic credit, few schools will be able to achieve the necessary number of students abroad without the services and support of independent study abroad programs.

With variation, there are three basic types of program structures that colleges and universities use to send students to a range of destinations around the world — exchange, direct enrollment and independent study abroad organizations.

In an exchange, two educational institutions, one abroad and one in the United States, agree to collect and retain tuition from their students. They then swap their students on an even basis, usually over three to five years. Such exchange agreements allow the U.S. campus to retain any institutional aid that was awarded to its participating students while gaining the benefit of enrolling foreign students for a semester or a year. In addition, such agreements often provide for faculty and staff exchanges. However, exchanges are administratively costly to maintain since exchanges require a commitment to build and maintain the relationship. Except for large institutions, few U.S. schools can sustain more than 10 to 15 exchange agreements due to the consequent communication and visits necessary to sustain them if the arrangements are to be successful.

The second type of program, direct enrollment, allows a U.S. college or university to place its students at institutions abroad paying the foreign institutions’ fees for tuition, room and board. The financial arrangements for the U.S. campus can be positive if tuition at the host campus is less than its own. The U.S. institution can collect tuition from its students and pay the host institution abroad. Directly enrolling students is only advantageous for private U.S. schools that are likely to have higher tuition than the foreign

Public universities and minority-serving institutions, which often charge modest tuition, are not likely to be able to afford the cost of directly enrolling students, especially if a majority of the students are receiving institutional aid. Further, the continuing poor exchange rate of the dollar to the Euro and the British pound is making direct enrollment difficult even for the more expensive U.S. colleges and universities.

Lastly, the independent study abroad organizations are businesses that offer academic programs abroad, usually for an all-inclusive fee. Covered are tuition, room and board, and administrative support such as on-site staff and arrangement of special classes. Included in the fees are student services from academic advising, counseling, housing placements, orientations, excursions and group activities and access to computer facilities. Like direct enrollment at a foreign university, the cost of sending a student abroad with an independent program provider can be higher than the fees of the more modestly priced U.S. institutions. When that is the case, students usually pay the fees directly to the study abroad organization. The home campuses receive no tuition, and financial aid follows the students. Financial loss to the U.S. campus can be considerable with each student that is abroad.

Visits to institutions abroad facilitate a deep understanding of the differences and similarities in pedagogy and the value of credits awarded. The compatibility for courses is especially important in the sciences, math, nursing and engineering. But visits to foreign campuses can be prohibitively expensive. The independent providers can often organize group visits at a considerable savings because of volume airfares and their local staff can negotiate reasonable hotel rates and the cost of group meals and excursions.

— Karen Jenkins is a past president of Brethren Colleges Abroad.

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