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Study Abroad Programs Questioned

"As overseas study has become a prized credential of the undergraduate experience, a competitive, even cutthroat, industry has emerged, with an army of vendors vying for student money and universities moving to profit from the boom," writes the International Herald Tribune:

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 the students who take the trips. [.] To promote their preferred providers, many colleges require students to use them, sometimes denying financial aid or credit to students taking alternate routes, even at top-tier universities.

Critics say that these perks, "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."
This particularly affects poor students, according to one expert: "We're all wringing our hands about how to make it possible for lower income kids to participate in study abroad," said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director at the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. "But one of the reasons it costs so much is all this institutional mediation."

More than 200,000 American students flock to foreign universities a year, an increase of nearly 150 percent over the last decade. [.] No regulations govern study abroad programs, except a voluntary code of ethics from an industry trade group that limits members to "gifts that are of nominal value and that do not seem intended to influence professional decisions. [.] The industry lacks a central registry of study abroad providers, but experts put the number of major players at just under 100. Nor does any group track which universities use outside study abroad providers and which contract directly with a foreign institution; colleges often do both, depending on the location.

Experts now call for "more transparency, [.] as overseas site visits for educators, when given in exchange for student participation in a program, crossed an ethical line."

Students, while cherishing their overseas experience, are sometimes the system's most bitter critics. Few, if any, are aware of the perks dispensed by study abroad providers, but they complain generally of the high costs of studying overseas and do not understand how providers get selected by universities.

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