AG Cuomo subpoenas study abroad programs

After an investigation last year that laid bare questionable practices in the student loan industry and implicated one former Emerson employee, New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s office recently subpoenaed 15 other colleges and universities regarding the study abroad programs endorsed by those schools.

A spokesperson for Cuomo’s office said the subpoenas request documents explaining how some colleges establish exclusive contracts with, and get paid by third-party providers of study-abroad experiences for each student they refer as well as receiving free travel or other gifts.

The inquiry comes at a time of explosive interest in study abroad programs; a report released in January by trade group NAFSA: Association of International Educators cites a 150 percent increase in the number of students who received credit abroad over the last decade, and projects even faster growth in the future.

Emerson effectively avoids such entanglements by owning and operating its main study abroad facility at Kasteel Well in the Netherlands, said David Griffin, director of international study and external programs at Emerson. Smaller programs also operate in Taiwan and Prague through accredited institutions there.

According to Griffin, students who want to venture off the reservation must make their own arrangements. Emerson maintains a policy to only accept credits from accredited American institutions.

“To have only accredited institutions, it assures some level of quality,” he said. Griffin added that his office does not currently steer students toward any particular third-party program.

Chelsea Andes, an Emerson sophomore who took a leave of absence this semester to attend an international program in Paros, Greece, said she received no assistance from the college with her application.

“I’ve pretty much been responsible for finding and connecting with the program. I’ve been really lucky,” the writing, literature and publishing major said. “The Hellenic International Studies in the Arts doesn’t charge for their credits usually, but Emerson is so particular about their credits, so I have to pay MassArt to attend.”

A spokesperson for Cuomo’s office confirmed that the attorney general is seeking to discover if similar quid-pro-quo relationships were established between those colleges’ third-party study-abroad providers.

“It was a smart outgrowth of the financial aid investigation,” said John Milgrim, Cuomo’s representative. “It’s a consumer protection issue.”

While some of the institutions are outside of New York State, Milgrim said Cuomo’s office has jurisdiction via New York residents who attend those colleges.

Harvard and Brandeis have acknowledged the receipt of the subpoenas, according to both schools’ student newspapers.

Although Emerson was not subpoenaed by Cuomo, Milgram said the same type of unethical relationships that led to the firing of numerous financial aid officers nationwide–including former Dean of Enrollment Dan Pinch who left Emerson last April-are the focus of the current inquiries at other schools.

The investigation began in August after The New York Times published a report revealing how some third-party study abroad institutions offer perks and share profit with colleges for each student funneled to that provider. Cuomo’s first round of subpoenas went out in August to five of the independent groups.

Citing confidentiality restrictions and prohibitively voluminous records, Emerson Registrar William Dewolf said in an e-mail message that he was unable to confirm if any Emerson students ever attended the five groups being investigated.

Included in the probe are the Institute for Study Abroad at Butler University, the American Institute for Foreign Study, the Institute for International Education of Students, the Center for Education Abroad at Arcadia University and the Danish Institute for Study Abroad through the University of Copenhagen.

Evelyn Garcia, now a Boston University sophomore, said she traveled to London with the American Institute for Foreign Study in 2005 before her senior year of high school. She said she found the program acceptable, although her credits did not transfer.

“Socially and culturally I got a lot out of it, but maybe not academically,” said Garcia, a psychology and film double major. “There weren’t a lot of choices in the classes we could take. I guess I learned, but I didn’t find it useful for my current path of life.”

One of the other groups which received an order to hand over information was the Arcadia University Center for Education Abroad. Spokesperson Lori Bauer said Arcadia University-located in Glenside, Pa. just outside of Philadelphia-has complied fully with Cuomo’s requests, but cannot comment on exactly what materials have been handed over.

“The Center for Education Abroad is an integral part of the university,” Bauer said. “I think we believe strongly in the integrity of our program and are pleased to be working cooperatively with the attorney general.”

The majority of students who pass through AUCEA are not students at Arcadia University, Bauer said. Two thousand students, or two-thirds of the program’s total number of participants, are from other institutions.

Some industry professionals, however, are wary to paint too perfect a picture of the study abroad landscape.

“I’ve been talking to some people about how the study abroad programs at colleges are jumping on the bandwagon as a sort of money-making operation,” said Holly Bull, the proprietor of Interim Programs, LLC, an academic advising service that has been in the business of helping students with their study-abroad experiences for over 25 years.

“I think for sure when the colleges sort of got into this, that it behooves them to do their own program, or promote their own program,” Bull said.