Foreign study under review

Libby Nelson

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Northwestern’s study abroad programs are under investigation by the New York attorney general’s office as part of a probe into the relationship between universities and study abroad providers.

NU received subpoenas last week asking for documents related to its affiliated study abroad programs, university spokesman Al Cubbage said Monday.

The investigation, which began in August, is examining potential conflicts of interest between study abroad program providers and universities, The New York Times reported Monday. The investigation followed a Times article in August reporting that some study abroad programs offer incentives to colleges, including free or subsidized travel and unpaid seats on advisory boards, to influence their decision on where students may study abroad.

These incentives could drive up prices for students and limit their study abroad options.

The first round of subpoenas to colleges and universities includes 14 institutions besides NU, including Harvard, Cornell and Columbia Universities.

Five major study abroad providers were subpoenaed in the first phase of New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s investigation.

Programs offered by two of those providers, the Institute for International Education of Students and the Center for Education Abroad at Arcadia University, make up a quarter of NU’s 105 study abroad options.

The Office of Study Abroad offers three choices to NU students who want to receive credit for foreign study. Some universities are approved for direct enrollment. In other cases, NU runs its own study abroad program at a foreign university. The vast majority of study abroad programs are “affiliated,” run by an outside agency but approved by NU so credits can transfer.

Applying to a non-affiliated program is possible but requires a special petition process.

With the exception of direct enrollment in a few universities, Arcadia programs are the only NU-affiliated options for students studying abroad in the United Kingdom, Greece, Australia and New Zealand.

“I think the attorney general was looking at the industry, and we are a part of that industry,” said Lori Bauer, director of university relations for Arcadia University, in a phone interview Monday. “We have high confidence in the integrity of our program.”

Two other providers under investigation, the Institute for Study Abroad at Butler University and the Danish Institute for Study Abroad, also offer a total of four programs to NU students.

NU shares profits with some affiliated programs, but the savings are passed on to students via scholarships or reductions in tuition, Cubbage said in a statement issued Monday.

“Northwestern has been reviewing these and other related issues for more than a year,” according to the statement.

NU’s study abroad program has experienced immense growth, with the number of affiliated programs increasing tenfold since the Study Abroad Office opened 10 years ago.

“The university’s decisions on which programs we affiliate with are based on careful assessment of each program’s quality and the evaluations of our students who go on those programs,” Cubbage said in the statement.

NU study abroad director Bill Anthony participated with the Forum for Education Abroad, an organization of U.S. and international universities that develops standards for study abroad programs, in creating a code of ethics, according to minutes of the forum’s September meeting. The code includes guidelines on incentives and conflicts of interest, according to the organization’s Web site.

The university’s Office of Study Abroad referred requests for comment to Cubbage. The Institute for International Education office and Cuomo’s New York office were closed for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and did not return phone calls seeking comment.

The university’s lawyers are reviewing the subpoena requests and deciding what information is relevant and should be provided, Cubbage said.

There is no deadline for complying with the request, he said.

Michael Gsovski and Amanda Palleschi contributed reporting.

Reach Libby Nelson at libbynelson@northwestern.edu.

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