Study abroad inquiry widens


Published: Monday, January 21, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 20, 2008 at 10:03 p.m.

An investigation of college study abroad programs by the New York attorney general's office has expanded to include 15 colleges and universities, among them Harvard, Brown and Columbia, according to a senior lawyer in the office.

Investigators for Andrew M. Cuomo, the attorney general, are asking about who at each college is responsible for approving contracts related to study abroad, how each institution selects the programs it approves and whether it has received anything of value from a study abroad provider, among other issues, according to the lawyer and to representatives of some of the colleges that received the subpoenas and requests.

Questions about study-abroad programs were raised in an article in The New York Times last summer that described how some program providers offer colleges rebates, free and subsidized travel, unpaid seats on advisory boards, help with back-office services, marketing stipends and other benefits. Critics say the arrangements, which are seldom disclosed, can limit students' options and result in higher prices for those seeking international experience.

The potential conflicts of interest are reminiscent of those created by ties between colleges and student loan companies; the disclosure of those arrangements led to investigations by Cuomo's office and by lawmakers in Washington last spring. The similarity in the relationships has raised questions about other possible conflicts at colleges.

According to the lawyer, investigators have also sent subpoenas and document requests to Fordham University, Manhattanville College, American University and Northwestern University, among others. This is the second wave of subpoenas and document requests from Cuomo's office; the first targeted agencies that provide study abroad programs.

According to the lawyer in Cuomo's office, the 15 universities were selected because investigators were concerned that some had "affiliation agreements'' with study abroad providers or had other relationships with them. Investigators also want to learn more about how students are billed for participating in such programs.

The goal ultimately is to develop a code of conduct that would govern the programs and the ties between colleges and study abroad providers, similar to the code of conduct Cuomo's office developed that governs relationships between colleges and lenders, the lawyer said.

Representatives of several colleges contacted by Cuomo's office could not be reached or could not comment over the holiday weekend. However, several - including Alfred University in Alfred, N.Y.; Columbia; Cornell; Fordham; Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y.; Pace University; and Manhattanville College - confirmed that they had received requests or subpoenas and stated their intention to cooperatse.

"Nearly 50 percent of all Hobart and William Smith students study abroad,'' a spokeswoman for Hobart and William Smith Colleges said in a statement. "We are proud of our study-abroad program and value the educational experience it provides students. We intend to comply fully with the attorney general's request.''

The attention to study abroad programs has prompted self-examination by participants in the industry. A trade group, NAFSA: Association of International Educators, recently released a report prepared by a task force charged with reviewing the business.

The report said issues like "potentially questionable financial arrangements between institutions and program providers'' would be "limited in scope,'' but also suggested that colleges have clear conflict-of-interest policies.

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