While several universities are facing criticism for accepting kickbacks and free trips from study abroad companies vying for student dollars, CSU officials maintain its study abroad office has acted ethically and in the interest of students.
Those critical of the incentives reported in The New York Times say the perks severely limit students’ options and ultimately inflate the cost of international study.
Cash bonuses, offers of expenses-paid travels to abroad sites and commissions for students enrolled in specific programs are among offers made by such groups, in exchange for exclusivity in the programs offered by a study abroad office.
Kara Bingham, director of study abroad at CSU, says the last time she had a trip paid for by an outside agency was in 2003, when she traveled to Granada, Spain to visit the Spanish Language and Culture program, paid for by International Studies Abroad.
In March, one advisor was sent to South Africa at the expense of a different company.
Bingham said there is nothing wrong with the practice, as it serves an important role in providing students the best possible study abroad experience.
“I think it would be unprofessional not to have advisors go over,” Bingham said. “It’s a matter of university accountability to actually have an understanding of the institution that students are going to.”
“If a student asks me ‘Where in France would you suggest I study engineering?’ I can have a sense of what is it like on the ground, and I’ve a much better ability to explain to students what it’s like,” she added.
CSU’s study abroad office offers 29 CSU-sponsored programs at universities, as well as 15 affiliates; companies with a wide range of locales and universities from which to choose.
The fight for student dollars
Bingham said she has turned down offers of incentives from many start-up, lesser-known study abroad companies in the past – offers similar to those being reported by The New York Times.
Accepting such offers would create “a sense of impropriety,” she said.
“Our choice in affiliate is not based whatsoever on any office contribution, and our practice is not to accept any agreement that would give contributions to the study abroad office,” Bingham said.
Site visits paid for, either in full or in part, by outside agencies are not improper, Bingham said.
Bingham said most of the time, CSU was paying for the site visits that take place for one advisor once a semester. When it was decided that the office would take advantage of an agency-paid-for site visit, it was only acquired after an application process to the program provider.
Bingham added that the office only allowed such site visits when priorities allowed for it. As in the example of the advisor who had gone to South Africa, Bingham said a trip to Africa was necessary, as the advisor solely advised for students who planned to study abroad in Africa, yet she had never actually set foot on the continent.
Bingham said the site visits were for work purposes, in which entire days were spent researching a university: meeting with its officials, faculty, support services, attending students, the families taking part in exchange programs and visiting the campus and the dorms.
Visitors typically stay in dorms and hotel rooms, Bingham said, often sharing a room with a colleague.
Benefits passed onto students, Bingham said, are the only kind of benefits the office takes from programs and affiliates: discount rates and scholarship funds are generally available, depending on the affiliate or sponsored university.
Discounts would come in the form of a drop in cost for semester tuition, and scholarships would be offered and available just like regular financial aid scholarships.
CSU students interested in international study are not required to enroll through the study abroad. In fact, some students could save money by enrolling directly with the foreign school and foregoing the university and other middlemen.
University of South Australia student exchange officer Natalie Grant said in an e-mail last month that direct enrollment as an international student to her university costs around $6,250 for a semester of tuition and other services.
In-state students stand to save by going through CSU’s study abroad office at a charge of $4,375 for the same services. Out-of-state students, however, face a cost of $9,765 when going through CSU’s study abroad office – about $3,500 more than direct enroll.
This case is similar to situations taking place at universities around the country, some campuses’ charging higher rates to in-state students as well as out-of-state students.
At some universities, students can only earn transferable credit by enrolling through the campus’ study abroad office.
But this is not the case at CSU, Bingham said. CSU will accept credit from any foreign university that has been recognized by its nation’s Ministry of Education.
Bingham said some students preferred the safety and guidance offered by CSU’s study abroad office. On-site program staff familiar with American students often adds a slice of comfort to what could be an overwhelming travel experience, she said.
Then there were others, Bingham said, who would seek an experience without such support, just for the excitement of truly going out into the world on their own and dealing with conditions without guidance or support.
Regardless of whether a student chooses to go through the office or not, advisors will nonetheless contact a student to inform them of all their options and to check that the student will be making a safe voyage.
“Our focus is that we want more students to study abroad,” Bingham said. “As long as they’re going abroad and as long as they’re doing it safely, it doesn’t matter how they get there.”
Most students choose to go through the study abroad office to find a program that suits their needs.
Carolyn Witaske, a junior speech communication major, spent a semester-at-sea through one of CSU’s affiliates. Witaske said her experience preparing for the trip with a study abroad advisor was useful.
“I met with my advisor, who told me what classes would work, and helped me out with paperwork,” Witaske said. “They helped make it happen.”
Senior reporter Erik Myers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.