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Study Abroad: Caveat Emptor

At the dawn of the 21st century, every college in America is touting its smorgasbord of study abroad opportunities, from Albania to Angola to Australia and back again. For colleges, these programs are “must-haves,” just like climbing walls, salad bars, and frisbee golf. And these programs have proliferated in a very short amount of time. How did this happen? The free market stepped in to provide “study abroad services” to colleges that could not economically create their own programs.

But as everything in a market society, some shady practices have developed along with the demand, and it turns out that some colleges–and even individual college administrators–sometimes get kickbacks to promote certain programs over other, or to build exclusive arrangements with certain study abroad companies.

The New York Times recently ran an article (registration required) exposing some of the cozy relationships between colleges and study abroad providers. Here’s an excerpt:

At many campuses, study abroad programs are run by multiple companies and nonprofit institutes that offer colleges generous perks to sign up students: free and subsidized travel overseas for officials, back-office services to defray operating expenses, stipends to market the programs to students, unpaid membership on advisory councils and boards, and even cash bonuses and commissions on student-paid fees. This money generally goes directly to colleges, not always to the students who take the trips.

Critics say that these and similar arrangements, which are seldom disclosed, typically limit student options and drive up prices for gaining international credentials compared with the most economical alternative — enrolling directly in a foreign university, paying generally lower tuition to that institution and having the credits transferred. Some campuses require students to use one of several affiliated providers, but some even have exclusive arrangements with study-abroad agents, further limiting options.

The article also highlights the case of a Columbia student who wanted to go to Oxford to study for a year at one of the most prestigious colleges within the Oxford system. Because Columbia had an exclusive financial agreement with another, lesser college, the student was not allowed to transfer his credits earned at Oxford back to Columbia. He appealed, and lost. So he dropped out of Columbia and graduated from Oxford.

The cautionary tale here is that not all study abroad programs are alike. While some universities have rich academic offerings and exert tight quality control over their programs, others are simply “credit mills” shepherd large groups of students overseas, through them into some classes of questionable value, and transfer some (always good) grades back to the students’ home universities.

Meanwhile, many cash-strapped universities are happy to send kids overseas for reasons other than the transformative experience of learning another culture. Universities make agreements with study abroad providers, whose programs cost considerably less than the cost of tuition at a private, 4-year college. Mom and dad are paying full tuition at the home university, while the university turns around and pays the provider perhaps a third of what a semester’s tuition costs. And the university pockets the rest. Moreover, the university doesn’t have to construct new dorms for all those kids on their junior year abroad…thus saving even more money over the long haul.

What’s the point here?

The point is that students and their parents needs to be as careful about choosing a study abroad program as they are about choosing a college. Some study abroad experiences have the potential to expand a student’s horizons intellectually, culturally, and socially (and geographically, of course). But others are not worth the price of admission.

So look carefully at those study abroad options. Does the college create its own programs or buy them “off the shelf” from other providers? Who are those other providers? Does the college have exclusive arrangements, or can students create their own programs or choose others that are not on the college’s “official, approved list”? Does the college’s academic faculty exert any oversight at all over the study abroad program, or is it run as a profit center within the university administration?

The answers to these questions…as well as the goals of the individual student…should guide you as you investigate study abroad options.

Mark Montgomery
Montgomery Educational Consulting and Study Abroad Specialist

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