Study-abroad programs at 15 colleges and universities including Harvard and Columbia are being scrutinized by the New York attorney general’s office to ensure cozy deals between schools and companies that provide the programs are not cheating students, a top investigator said Monday.
Benjamin Lawsky, deputy counselor and special assistant to Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo, said prosecutors are focusing on the schools after a probe of more than a dozen companies worldwide that arrange for students to study abroad for up to a year identified questionable practices.
“We have certainly found indications there are financial relationships between some study abroad providers and schools and some evidence of perks,” he said. Investigators want to know which administrators at each school are responsible and how programs are chosen, he added.
He said an example of a perk would be a program that arranged for a school administrator to stay in a city such as Rome for three weeks even though it only took four days to examine the plans for the study-abroad program there.
“That would be eyebrow raising, the kind of thing we’re examining,” he said. “At the end of the day, the people who get harmed the most by conflicts of interest on campus are middle-class students and their families who really can’t afford to pay extra for these services while the schools reap the benefits.”
He said the office had found many instances in which schools have only one company arranging the trips.
Lawsky said investigators want to know if there is only one provider “because they’re the best, the cheapest, the most cost effective or because there’s a cozy financial relationship with the school and those who work at the school.”
He said the civil probe of the relationships between the schools and the programs is aimed at creating a unified code of conduct to prevent abuse that costs students money. The New York attorney general’s office says it has jurisdiction to protect New York students and their families wherever they go to school.
Some schools that received subpoenas and document requests in recent days were chosen because of the nature of their relationships with study-abroad providers but the group also was believed to be a sampling of colleges and universities with study-abroad programs.
“There certainly is a much larger number of schools involved with these practices,” said Lawsky, who heads Cuomo’s investigations of conflicts of interest on college campuses.
The study of 10 schools in New York State and five outside it occurs as the number of students getting academic credit for study abroad has risen 150 percent over the past decade.
During the 2005-2006 academic year, more than 223,000 U.S. students studied abroad, up 8.5 percent from the year before, according to the latest annual survey by the Institute of International Education.
The goal of the probe is similar to a year-long study by Cuomo’s office of the $85 billion student loan industry that led to national reform of the industry and millions of dollars in penalties from dozens of lenders and colleges nationwide. Lawsky headed that probe as well.
“What we have found over the past year is that colleges often become a real bottleneck for numerous vendors who want to generate student business,” Lawsky said. “It puts the schools in a very powerful position because they control that bottleneck.”
He said the companies compete for everything from study-abroad revenues to contracts for textbooks, computers and food services.
“We want to make sure through our various investigations that colleges aren’t harming students’ interests for their own financial benefit,” Lawsky said.
Other schools included in the probe are Northwestern University, American University, Brown University, Brandeis University, Fordham University, Alfred State College, Alfred University, Manhattanville College, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Pace University, Cornell University, Siena College and the College of New Rochelle, Lawsky said.
Alan Stone, a spokesman for Harvard, said the school’s lawyers had received a subpoena and were evaluating it.
Alfred University President Charles M. Edmondson said in a statement released on the school’s Web site that it received a subpoena requiring the school to submit the bulk of its records on international educational programs for 2005 and 2006.
“We had received no prior communication from the attorney general’s office about these matters,” Edmondson said. “The genesis of this matter seems to have no specific connection to Alfred University.”
Simeon Moss, a Cornell spokesman, said: “We’re continuing to review the subpoena and we’ll consider our response. Of course we’ll comply with our legal obligations.”
Messages for comment left with other schools were not immediately returned.
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