AMERICAN COLLEGES AND universities are redoubling efforts to encourage student participation in study abroad and other cross-cultural experiences. In an increasingly global economy, and at a time when geopolitics make cross-cultural understanding more important than ever, the benefits for students immersing themselves in another culture are obvious.
It's a fact on the minds of educators and lawmakers alike. At the recommendation of the Commission on the Abraham Lincoln Study Abroad Fellowship Program, Congress introduced the Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Foundation Act of 2007 (H.R. 1469). Once signed into law, the act will devote millions in federal funding to a national program that seeks to make study abroad the norm for undergraduate education.
Yet, as with student loans, study abroad programs have come under public scrutiny. A recent <em>New York Times</em> article questioned the arrangements colleges have with third-party providers, prompting New York state's attorney general to launch an investigation into study abroad practices. The principal concerns are that third-party providers drive up the cost of studying overseas and that colleges turn tidy profits on the programs and receive travel perks for faculty.
Those of us in higher education should welcome these types of inquiries. Let us not, however, be so quick to pass judgment and dismiss the advantages offered by the many reputable programs either.
My institution, <b>Susquehanna University</b> (Pa.), allows students to use their full financial aid (including institutional aid) toward study abroad. The result: study abroad remains affordable. This practice makes it unlikely for institutions to benefit from the programs. In fact, portable financial aid is a significant expense to Susquehanna. But we consider cross-cultural understanding central to preparing students to live in a diverse and interconnected world, so we deem it an appropriate, even vital, educational expense. And it's likely to increase in the coming years.
Our newly approved central curriculum requires participation in cross-cultural experiences followed by reflective courses that help students incorporate the knowledge gained by these experiences into their fields of study, and ultimately their lives after college.
But why use third-party providers to help achieve this? Reputable study abroad providers give a level of service to students that small colleges and universities frequently cannot match. Providers help students manage their class schedules-smoothing out issues that result from different academic calendars at foreign institutions. Many have full-time resident directors on site to guide students both academically and culturally.
Internationally or domestically, the health and safety of our students is our top priority. While Susquehanna stays in contact with our students studying abroad, our crisis response time could never match that of third-party providers who are on the ground, observing situations firsthand. They provide timely communication to students as well as parents and the campus study abroad office whenever a situation could affect students' well-being.
Susquehanna had students in Madrid in 2004 when the commuter train bombings occurred, and more recently in Mexico when Hurricane Dean hit. Our program providers were quick to contact each of our students, and then to contact us and the parents to let us know the students were safe. Not all overseas universities are able to provide this level of service, and it would be difficult for American universities to do so without adding staff, which could drive up tuition costs.
So, indeed, it is our experience that third-party study abroad providers can offer efficient and cost-effective options for students. Some programs may be better than others. Some may have business practices that do not stand up to scrutiny and should be changed. But if American colleges and universities are committed to providing cross-cultural opportunities to their students, it is up to each institution to thoroughly vet these programs to make sure they serve their students in the best way possible.
We are constantly reviewing study abroad options for our students. And we aren't shy about advocating for their best interests. We know many colleagues do the same, and we encourage all to do so. Let us all be vigilant in these efforts, but let us not lose sight of the critical educational value of cross-cultural and study abroad experiences in preparing future generations of citizen leaders.
<em>L. Jay Lemons is president of Susquehanna University, a national liberal arts college in Selinsgrove, Pa.</em>