NEWS

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February 29, 2008

Study abroad lawsuit raises pricing issues

A Boston-area civil-rights attorney filed a lawsuit earlier this month against Wheaton College in Norton, MA, for charging students home tuition rates for cheaper programs overseas.

The suit is the most recent move against college and university study abroad offices across New England. The New York and Connecticut attorneys general offices recently launched high-profile investigations into the ethical practices between colleges and outside educational institutions that host study abroad programs. Last month, the New York attorney general subpoenaed 15 New England schools—including Harvard, Brown, and Brandeis—for information on their study -abroad tuition policies.

Martha Merritt, associate dean of international education at the University of Chicago, said that while the University currently does not have plans to change its own study abroad policies, the investigations and recent suit have inspired the University to analyze its own study abroad procedures.

“I’m certain that universities are paying attention [to the lawsuit], and I think that every program benefits from considering these things in this light. My peers are discussing this vigorously,” she said.

John Brady, the attorney who filed the suit, is the parent of a recent Wheaton graduate and said that the college overcharged his family for a South Africa–based semester program that his daughter enrolled in during 2006.

“We had no idea of the actual cost of this program and—this is important to know—Wheaton never disclosed the actual cost of the program overseas,” he said.

He said his own inquiries determined that the actual cost of the South Africa program was roughly $4,500 less than Wheaton’s tuition.

Wheaton charges home tuition for academic programs abroad, a standard practice for many college and universities nationwide.

“We don’t charge students on what kind of courses they enroll in at the College. We don’t offer education à la carte, is one way to put it,” said Michael Graca, assistant vice president of communications at Wheaton.

“A literature survey course is less costly than an advanced chemistry course, but we don’t charge the advanced chemistry student more. The same stands for our study abroad program,” he added.

Merritt echoed Graca’s concerns, adding that home institutions must maintain operational costs and functionality even when students study overseas.

“It’s necessary to keep the home campus running regardless of the number of students studying abroad,” she said.

However, Brady added that Wheaton did not provide justification for the additional charges.

“Wheaton provides zero services to their overseas programs. They don’t provide any faculty, books, housing, or food to the students,” he said.

The U of C, like Wheaton, also charges home tuition rates for its study abroad programs. However, Merritt said that the University’s study abroad programs diverge from those of other schools in that the University implements and staffs many of its own programs overseas.

“The majority of our programs do indeed charge University of Chicago tuition, but this is because the bulk of our programs [abroad] are very much like University of Chicago programs [at home],” she said.

“Unlike most other universities, the University of Chicago runs its own study abroad programs. We set it up, we send our own faculty, we really ensure that our programs abroad duplicate our own rigorous education. Our study abroad programs are our own arrangement, and it’s explicitly for University of Chicago students,” she added.

Although Brady estimated that Wheaton “pockets between $4,000 and $7,000 extra” per student studying abroad, both Graca and Merritt say policies that charge home tuition for overseas programs provide many low- to middle-income students the financial resources to travel abroad.

“Our current policy allows students who have Wheaton institutional grants to take those grants with them when they study abroad. Our policy puts studying abroad within the reach of students who would not otherwise have been able to study abroad,” Graca said.

U of C students who receive need-based grant money also continue to receive those grants while studying abroad, Merritt said. She added that the University’s alumni fundraising efforts help to endow summer travel grants such as the Foreign Language Acquisition Grant (FLAG), which provides up to 100 awards of up to $2,000 each to College students who submit proposals to learn a foreign language abroad.

Merritt said that the University hopes the new Odyssey Scholarship, which will replace student loans with grant money for students from low-income families beginning this fall, will also make study abroad options more affordable for College students.

“Although the Odyssey Scholarship doesn’t immediately affect study abroad, we are already looking at the data to see if students who may not have had a chance to study abroad before now do have these opportunities,” she said.

Nevertheless, Brady said that he hopes the lawsuit will set a national precedent for the way colleges and universities conduct their study abroad billings nationwide. He said that since filing the suit, he has been contacted by several other Wheaton parents as well as parents from schools throughout New England who expressed similar concerns about transparency in university study abroad procedures.

He called current university study abroad billing procedures “predatory practices,” adding that students and their families are often victimized by colleges and universities who hope to make a profit on tuition charges.

“You’re a captive client, a captive customer. It’s a contract where one party has very little bargaining power,” he said.

Currently, between a quarter and a third of U. S. colleges and universities charge home tuition for overseas programs, Brady said. He lauded the study abroad policies of Brandeis University and Smith College—both of which charge their students the cheaper tuition of host institutions abroad—and said that he hoped more institutions will adopt similar tuition policies in the future.

However, Graca said that Wheaton’s study abroad office is not currently considering any changes to its study abroad policies and tuition costs. He also said that he does not think that the suit will hold ramifications for study abroad offices nationwide.

“I don’t think [the lawsuit] will set a national precedent,” he said.

He added that while Wheaton’s study abroad policies are similar to those at other colleges and universities, significant variation among study abroad offices makes it difficult to predict nationwide trends in overseas education.

Merritt said that the lawsuit is unlikely to directly affect the University’s management of its study abroad programs but said that she believes that the recent scrutiny of nationwide study abroad procedures provides the University with opportunities for improving the quality of its own overseas programs.

“University tuition is very expensive and certainly I want all students to have a study abroad experience. I’m hoping that the current climate in study abroad leads us to better programs,” she said.