Several colleges and universities now sponsor a freshman year abroad, sending students who have just landed on their own campus to study for a term or a full year in Europe, Latin America, Asia or Africa. Syracuse University has a “Discovery Florence” program. The University of Mississippi sends some freshmen to The University of Edinburgh for a whole year. Other schools in the field include the University of New Haven (Roehampton University, London), New York University (London, Paris and Florence), Arcadia University (London, Limerick or Stirling, Scotland) and Florida State (Florence, London, Panama City and Valencia).
But many have reservations about the plan. One is that getting accustomed to college life is hard enough at a single campus without travelling to a foreign university first, and in effect have two freshman orientation years, one abroad, then one at home. Some students complain that they feel well behind their more settled home-campus peers when they return. Another worry is that the freshman year abroad tends to swing new students away from math, science and engineering, and toward the humanities and social sciences – the basis of most study abroad programs.
The colleges argue that the allure of the freshman-year abroad helps guarantee that the campus will attract the most venturesome students. A counterargument is that the program can be used cynically, to outsource the education of surplus freshmen and clear dormitory space after the college finds itself with a larger first-year class than it expected.
For many, the most galling aspect of the plan is similar to that of junior-year abroad programs: the home university charges full tuition and fees even though the costs of the foreign program are usually a good deal lower. At my daughter’s junior year abroad, 2003-2004, the home university charged the usual sticker price, $15,000 per semester for her year in Ireland and Vietnam that averaged about $8,000 per semester in tuition. The decline of the dollar cuts into the profit of the home campus, but the remaining cost disparity was bound to induce some parent to sue. That has now happened. The Boston Globe reports that the father of a recent graduate of Wheaton College, in Massachusetts, filed suit in state court calling Wheaton’s program “deceptive and unfair,” “the crudest kind of commercial gouging” and a violation of state consumer protection law. The father, James Brady, a lawyer who has represented employees in a number of whistle-blower lawsuits, says Wheaton charged his daughter nearly $23,000 for a semester in South Africa that cost about $18,000.
Wheaton says it has to charge full price to oversee the program and to offer study abroad to some of its needy students. But Brady says Wheaton does not appear to do much overseeing. The South Africa program is run by a commercial venture, the Vermont-based School for International Training (SIT). Brady could have paid much less if he dealt directly with SIT himself, but says the college told him that if he did so, his daughter would not get Wheaton credit for the study abroad.
Another aspect of study abroad – the possibility of kickbacks and favors – has brought pressure from the attorneys general of New York and Connecticut. For months, Andrew Cuomo has been looking into colleges’ relationships with companies that provide overseas college programs, specifically examining whether fifteen colleges on his list accept free trips to foreign locations or get discounted rates for giving companies exclusive access to their students. Connecticut’s attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, joined the Cuomo investigation two weeks ago, looking at ten colleges and universities in his state, including Yale, Wesleyan and Trinity. Colleges now catch flak on many fronts.