The Study Abroad Scandal

The New York Times has headlined yet another scandal in higher education: colleges and sometimes individual college officials have been receiving generous “incentives” to steer students into particular study abroad programs. The incentives include financial bounties and free trips abroad for the officials. As the Times points out, the self-dealing by college officials in these programs looks a lot like the self-dealing by college officials caught up in the student loan scandal.
How big a scandal is it that some colleges and some college officials have found another way to line their pockets at the expense of students? Not very big by itself, but coming on the heels of the student loan imbroglio, the study abroad scandal has stilts. From that height we can wonder if study abroad and financial aid are the whole of it: How many other aspects of the university enterprise offer college officials the opportunity to receive “gifts” at the ultimate expense of students?

Once upon a time, a certain kind of student yearned for a semester abroad or sought out opportunities to take a summer course in Salzberg or Poitiers. This was the American version of the “grand tour” with which wealthy Europeans once capped off the education of gentlemen. But Americans, being a pragmatic people, usually made sure that the venture included academic credit for courses that would meet degree requirements at the college back home.

And therein lies the beginning of mischief. Someone at the college back home has the power to say that a course in the history of tapestry at the University of Artois meets or doesn’t meet the “transfer credit” requirements of Generic College. By controlling transfer credit, colleges have leverage over where students can go when they study abroad. And leverage begets more leverage: lots of colleges end up with exclusive deals to send their students to particular custom-made programs at particular foreign universities. Instead of shopping around for the best combination of country, academic program, and price, the student simply chooses among the package options his college offers. As with financial aid programs, the students may not realize that they pay a premium price for no real benefit. The benefits flow to their colleges, and sometimes to the study abroad administrator.

To be sure, colleges have good reason to be picky about accepting transfer credit. A college curriculum, in principle, has shape and coherence. Some courses from elsewhere fit; some don’t. And some “elsewheres” are better than others. In this light, the best answers for students who encounter study abroad restrictions at their home colleges might be to take a leave of absence for a semester and go study where and what they want – and just forget about the college credit. I know, however, from my own experience with students seeking to study abroad that are often parsimonious in these decisions. Getting the transfer credit means they justify the expense as part of their college education, rather than a frill.

The pickiness of colleges is not in question, but when that pickiness is influenced by gifts to study abroad administrators, we need to look again. Not that study abroad administrators lack reasons to accept the gifts. The Times quotes Kathleen McDermott, director of global programs for liberal arts undergraduates at Columbia University, who explains that all those subsidized trips abroad for administrators, paid for by would-be or actual “preferred providers” of study abroad programs, serve an important educational function. “You get real access” she says, referring to the six such trips she has made since 1998. Her visits to Argentina and Chile, Uganda and Tanzania, Cuba, China, Jordan and Morocco no doubt paved the way to successful study abroad ventures by Columbia undergraduates.
The Times article also presents Brendan Jones, a one-time Columbia undergraduate who did things his own way. He didn’t ask for permission. Against Columbia’s advice he went off to a foreign university on his own and studied what he wanted. When Columbia declined to award him transfer credit, Mr. Jones then decided he would just stay at that foreign university – Oxford as it happened. I can imagine that Oxford has some courses that truly don’t mesh with Columbia’s curriculum, but the rub, as the Times reports it, was that Mr. Jones enrolled in Magdalen College, and Columbia has its own study abroad agreement with a different Oxford College.

So while Ms. McDermott is ascertaining the relative merits of a semester abroad in East Africa, China, or Cuba, other seemingly worthwhile venues for expanding one’s intellectual horizons were blocked. This makes sense as a business decision, if the aim of Columbia is to make sure that students who wish to engage in study abroad do so exclusively through programs that Columbia controls. But it makes little sense as an educational decision.

This is the larger lesson we need to take from both the student loan mega-scandal and its midget brother, the study abroad scandal. American higher education, in its zeal to become more business-like, has increasingly found itself in the position of exploiting students as paying customers and sacrificing student interests to corporate – and in some cases personal – greed. Kick-backs and sweetheart deals in the financial aid industry almost always served to drive up the costs borne by the students, in the form of higher fees and interest rates than the students could have obtained elsewhere. This soak-the-student approach, however, is sometimes dressed in the sanctimonious garb of helping students negotiate the perplexities of financial aid.

The folks running study abroad programs are likewise, in their own estimation, only serving the public good. The Times quotes Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, who explains that it has been the eagerness of colleges to “to make it possible for lower income kids to participate in study abroad” that has driven up the costs. Mr. Nassirian calls this “institutional mediation.” Translation: colleges steer students into extra-expensive study abroad programs from which the colleges themselves get an unacknowledged payment so that they can use those funds for scholarships for kids who can’t afford those extra-expensive programs.

This would explain high prices, but not arrangements in which the home college receives a slice of the revenue or administrators receive freebies. The Times wonders what other areas of higher education may be influenced by such “incentives.” Colleges and universities now “outsource” numerous functions they once handled on their own. Often this makes good financial sense, but every such arrangement offers opportunities for administrators and vendors to collude at the expense of students and parents. One of the first functions to be chiseled loose from the university was food services. Some colleges still run their own dining halls, but many contract with outside companies such as Aramark or Marriot. Many colleges have also divested themselves of bookstores. Barnes & Noble has economies of scale and more clout with textbook publishers than any stand-alone campus bookstore could ever have.

I have no reason to think food services or bookstores will be caught up in this widening scandal, but what separates them from student loan and study abroad programs? Maybe it’s because students can eat and buy books elsewhere if they judge the campus options to be second-rate or over-priced. The student loan and study abroad program are connected by the college misusing its authority to corral students for a vendor in situations where the students would be better off exploring alternatives.

So what should we do? This would appear to be a case where college trustees should gently brush aside the re-assurances of campus presidents. The responsibility for the integrity of the individual institutions lies with their trustees, and as we now have abundant evidence of malfeasance at many levels involving student loans and a seemingly similar case in study abroad programs, it may be time to engage in a little more vigorous scrutiny of what now passes for acceptable practice on colleges and universities. In business and industry, the call for due diligence would demand no less. Clearly the systems that should have been in place to prevent the sorts of self-dealing that have come to light have failed. Trustees should act now, before this scandal grows even larger.


  • Peter Wood

    Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars and author of “1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project.”

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