College study abroad is corrupt, subpoenas say

Fifteen university study abroad offices have been charged with traveling too much, not from their home countries, but rather, from the law. New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo issued subpoenas to these colleges and universities for entertaining corrupt alliances with specific third-party programs.

Subpoenas were issued to three third-party programs in August and September, and the investigation continued last Friday at several college and universities. The list of colleges in question includes Harvard, Columbia, Northwestern, and Brown universities, among others.

Of the 15 colleges and universities questioned, only Alfred State University publicly acknowledged its subpoena. Alfred State’s list of associations with third-party providers included the three first targeted by Cuomo. Although the subpoenas were issued last Friday, most of the colleges and universities have not yet revealed the exact contents of the subpoena nor publicly acknowledged their acceptance.

Many have commented on the similarities between the study abroad subpoenas and the student loan investigation initiated by Cuomo last spring.

The same pattern of Cuomo’s actions was followed in the student loan scandal. The investigation began with outside providers, then continued with the colleges and universities themselves a few months later.

Cuomo has charged the colleges and universities with the formation of “affiliation agreements” with study abroad providers, as he said in last Friday’s press release.

“This side of study abroad has always existed,” said John Hooker, professor of business ethics and adviser for the international track at the Tepper School of Business. “It’s just now that the issue is coming out into the public.”

One example of such an “agreement” is the relationship between the American Institute of Foreign Study and the University of Mary Washington.

According to a copy of the agreement obtained by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Mary Washington officials receive free trips to one its overseas sites and a five-percent share for every 15 students who sign up for the Institute program. If fewer than 15 sign up, the payback is reduced to a two-percent share.

According to the Institute’s website, it also has relationships with other universities nationwide, including the University of California at Berkeley, Fordham University, Pace University, and Rice University.

“These arrangements are very lucrative to the organization arranging the study abroad,” said Dale Hershey, a law professor in the Tepper School of Business, “but harmful to students, raising the costs of the program and denying recognition of some study abroad [programs] as qualifying for a degree.”

There are mixed opinions as to how this type of behavior should be monitored.

“I see instances such as this as evidence that, while markets do a good job of generally allocating resources, they still need rules to ensure a level playing field,” said Stephen Spear, professor of economics at the Tepper School of Business.

Hooker believes that the responsibility lies completely within a university. “Universities are their own guardians of integrity and should not need outside moderation,” said Hooker.

Hooker also addressed the reasons behind the need for universities to operate so extensively with outside programs. “For many universities, having a large number or students studying abroad is something impressive to put on their website or in their pamphlets,” he said, especially for large state universities.

For smaller and private universities, Hooker brought up the often large price differential between home school and outside programs. While a semester at Carnegie Mellon can cost roughly $25,000, a semester abroad can cost as little as $10,000, according to Hooker. Because the home school programs are often more expensive than outside providers, many students choose third-party programs.

The Office of International Education at Carnegie Mellon offers students the chance to meet with an adviser specializing in their individualized schools of study, as well as the chance to look in the study abroad “library,” a large shelf of pamphlets for nearly every place of study on the globe.

“Because of the role of our Office of International Education in offering options, not just telling people where to go, I don’t see this as a problem with our students,” said Hooker. Yet, despite its lack of relevance to our school, the issue has become a popular topic for the press and study abroad officials nationwide.

The Association of International Educators issued a report prepared by the organization’s special task force charged with reviewing the industry.

The report recommended that institutions be able to clearly define and explain their policies with regard to outside study abroad providers. It offered advice, but not as to how the situation should be monitored or what to do about schools that do not improve their practices.

The report was prepared in direct response to Cuomo’s investigation.

Hooker expressed hope that, despite controversy, more students will continue to go abroad.

“There aren’t enough students that do it here,” said Hooker, “and the experience is truly something amazing.”