The Next Big Scandal? Study-Abroad Offices' Cozy Deals With Vendors

August 13, 2007

As undergraduates seek new ways to set themselves apart, and colleges look for ways to make themselves appealing to outward-looking applicants, study-abroad programs have grown fast. In the 10 years ending in 2004, the number of American students headed abroad for study grew from just over 76,000 to nearly 206,000, according to figures compiled by the Institute of International Education. That trend has turned into big business.

And according to a front-page article in today’s New York Times, that big business has brought with it some of the same money-making practices by colleges, cozy relationships with outside vendors, and other suspect behavior that in the last six months has drawn widespread criticism to colleges’ student-aid offices.

The Times article says companies that run study-abroad programs often provide a range of benefits to the campus officials who decide which programs will win recognition (meaning foreign-earned credits will be honored) and therefore which ones students will be steered toward. The benefits include free foreign travel, free organizational services, marketing stipends, and even bonuses for signing students up, or what some would call kickbacks. Practices like those have landed a lot of student-aid officers in big trouble this year.

Those deals, which seem to favor certain companies over others, increase the cost of study abroad, making it more difficult for colleges to justify the arrangements as their efforts to act in the best interest of students — an excuse often invoked, without notable success, by the student-aid officers.

As in the case of student aid, the study-abroad business is complicated and difficult to navigate by students and parents on their own. Most rely on the good faith of campus officials to plan a study-abroad opportunity from which the student, not the college, will profit. Students would find themselves in situations less prone to abuse if they made their own study-abroad arrangements directly with foreign universities. But to judge from an example in the Times article, few have the time or expertise for that. —Andrew Mytelka