Expanding Student Choices in Study Abroad [Inside Higher Ed]

By Richard C. Sutton, Inside Higher Ed.

This summer tens of thousands of American college students are studying in overseas programs around the world. More than 200,000 U.S. students now study abroad each year, and a proposed federal initiative would raise that number to one million within the next decade.

The recent setback in efforts to secure U.S. Senate passage of the Simon Study Abroad Foundation Act offers an apt occasion to reflect on several challenges that face the field. Study abroad has grown dramatically in the past few decades. This growth has been led by a dedicated corps of international education professionals who are committed to high-quality academic experiences abroad that strengthen and enrich student learning. They have persevered through myriad internal and external impediments to develop programs and processes intended to serve students at their institutions. Despite these best efforts, however, most observers within and outside the field acknowledge that study abroad practices suffer from growing pains that are not uncommon to new educational endeavors.

It is a logical reflection of these pressures of popularity and growth that the U.S. study abroad profession has faced a series of investigations, legal actions, and negative press reports over the last two years. As more students participate in study abroad programs, greater scrutiny of those operations is inevitable. Allegations of kick-backs, coercive policies, and other questionable practices have grabbed headlines and compelled many colleges to re-examine their international operations.

Professional associations such as NAFSA: Association of International Educators and the Forum on Education Abroad have moved quickly in recent months to issue reports and guidelines that respond to questions of integrity and ethics. Their calls for greater transparency, accountability, and institutional oversight are all needed reforms that will improve the field.

Yet, from more than twenty years of working in the field of international education, it seems to me that two underlying forces generate many of the perceived abuses. (1) Many U.S. universities yield to the temptation that study abroad programs can be self-sustaining and even profitable cost centers that generate surplus revenues — in some cases producing substantial net income. (2) This expectation, in turn, drives many institutions to operate study abroad as a restrictive monopoly that denies students both academic and economic choice.

Numerous instances of such practices have surfaced in recent major news stories. At the core of these cases is the control of the transfer of credits earned at universities abroad. So long as U.S. institutions can effectively deny students credit for the same or comparable academic work completed overseas, they can coerce students to enroll in study abroad programs that they themselves sponsor or approve — even if the same academic program is available through other channels, often at lower cost or with a more appealing array of auxiliary services.

Universities couch their defense of these practices in a variety of academic and utilitarian rationalizations. As reported in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last September, one provost claimed that “the integrity of the overall effort would be compromised if we let students start shopping for the best deal.” In an April 2006 Wall Street Journal article, another university put it this way: “Our rationale is if you are going to earn [home school] credit toward your [home school] degree, you should pay [home school] tuition.”

But does this, in effect, mean that universities are selling their credits? Students take courses at host institutions in foreign countries. They earn transcripts from those host colleges for their coursework abroad. U.S. institutions then require those students to “buy” those credits for transfer back to the home university. Acceptance of credit is determined by the “approved sponsor” of the program, not by the academic integrity of the foreign institution itself.

Although there are some legitimate concerns about the academic autonomy of universities to control the imprint of courses that appear on their sanctioned transcripts, the primary driving force behind these restrictive policies appears to be economic. Colleges fear the perceived loss of tuition, fees, and other revenues if students pursue alternative methods in obtaining part of their education abroad. In forcing this protectionist approach, universities reduce the study abroad experience to a mere commodity that only holds value if it is purchased from the home institution’s company store.

This practice raises a fundamental question in an era of rapidly-increasing worldwide student mobility. Should U.S. universities control their students’ access to the global marketplace of education? Is this practice different than coercing students to buy their textbooks at the campus bookstore, when they could get those same products from Amazon.com at half the price?

Even more than the affected students, foreign universities should hold primary standing as the aggrieved parties in such cases. Their academic reputations are tarnished when U.S. institutions apply such seemingly arbitrary rules in accepting the intellectual product of their faculty and curriculum.

The Institute of International Education (IIE) recently issued a critique of the proposed Simon Act legislation before Congress, which would increase U.S. study abroad participation five-fold. IIE argued against the current plan to allocate 75 percent of federal funding to institutions, urging instead that monies go directly to individual students. This approach would empower students as the consumers of study abroad programs, rather than the institutions that provide them. In turn, they could seek out programs that in fact “offered them the best deal,” rather than being herded into a home institution’s restricted array of choices.

The recent NAFSA task force obliquely acknowledged this underlying issue on the penultimate page of its January 2008 report. “Arrangements with outside providers should never have the effect of limiting students’ other options for study abroad where these other options meet institutional standards for health, safety, and program quality.” This footnote to the report’s fourteen criteria for institutional management of study abroad deserves greater attention, because it strikes at the heart of the problem.

Why, after all, do we want students to study abroad? If we profess that it is for their and society’s benefit, can we in good conscience claim that the storefronts where students access these opportunities are more important than the education they actually receive?

The study abroad field, however, is divided on this issue. A 2007 survey by the Forum on Education Abroad found that 36 percent of universities never accept credit from programs that are not on their “approved” list, regardless of academic quality, health, and safety standards. The Forum devoted four sessions of its annual conference in Boston this past April to the ethics of such practices. This summer’s NAFSA conference in Washington, DC, generated further discussion about these challenges. The study abroad ethicist William Hoffa has just launched another survey on transfer credit questions. Clearly, these are problems that the field recognizes but is not sure how to remedy.

University registrars are often regarded as guardians of fair and equitable treatment in the recognition of credits. Their voices could have a significant role in this debate, and they are paying careful attention to the conversation. Several sessions at their recent national conference were devoted to this topic.

Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) , expressed strong concerns on this issue to The New York Times last August: “What is objectionable is, if the student decides at his or her own risk to go overseas, the outright refusal to take credit from a legitimate foreign institution.”

Many study abroad professionals have argued that restrictive practices are justified, so long as the process and consequences are transparent. Existing policy guidelines on transfer credit by the American Council on Education and others give implicit support to this approach. But does transparency of an unfair practice make such a practice legitimate?

We all vigorously support the continued and strengthened commitment of our government and our universities to provide accessible and affordable study abroad opportunities for our students. Their education, and our national capacity for leadership and success in the 21st century, will suffer if these tools of soft diplomacy are not expanded.

We see different consequences, however, from actions that deny a fair and open marketplace to students in the study abroad field. It is doubtful that some current U.S. practices will ultimately stand the test of time. “Approved” programs will likely go the way of “preferred” lenders: There are valid reasons to have them, but institutions cannot force students to use them. Universities will need to adapt models that protect their financial interests while adding value to a student’s overseas experience, and they are certainly capable of managing this challenge. Study abroad will unquestionably survive as a prosperous enterprise in the exploding sector of global higher education, and we can learn from our colleagues in other countries about their practices in credit acceptance and quality assurance.

Two simple reforms could dramatically change the U.S. study abroad landscape:

1) Universities should fund study abroad operations in the same way that they fund history and physics departments. If study abroad produces significant gains in learning outcomes or academic achievement, it should be supported commensurate with other segments of our academic mission. Economic pressures to be self-supporting or to generate profits should not be greater on study abroad programs than they are on other academic units.

2) Universities, and their study abroad offices, should in turn accept the valid transcripts of coursework completed from legitimate overseas programs, regardless of program sponsorship. This would level the playing field for all serious study abroad providers, contribute to our national capacity to send more students overseas, and encourage healthy competition in both program quality and cost-containment.

The irony of these debates, of course, is that U.S. international educators encourage their students to understand and even champion globalization, but often deny its realities in their own sphere. Now is a good time to shed our protectionist policies and embrace a truly global academic market.