The Study-Abroad Scam

Too many programs take your money but give you little in return— or enrich your skimming university. Here’s how to choose the right one.

A tourist in Paris.
See Paris! Just don’t get scammed.

Photo by Ekaterina Pokrovsky/Shutterstock

Finals might be over for the year, but summer is peak study-abroad season, so for many American college students, a new adventure begins: Overstuffed backpacks! Malaria shots! The superpack of Durexes (alas, to remain unused)!

The vast majority of study-abroad programs are eligible for financial aid—but does that make them a bargain? These days, a number of college study-abroad programs are less about cultural enrichment, and more about enriching the for-profit companies that run them—or, ugh, the universities themselves, which often get foreign tuition for a steal, and then pass none of the savings along to students.

The New York state Legislature is concerned about this: Both its chambers have sponsored bills (one by Republican Kenneth LaValle; the other by Democrat Deborah Glick) that would require the state’s universities to disclose the actual costs of their study-abroad programs—including any perquisites (that is, free stuff) offered to university employees in exchange for enrollment. The bill comes, Inside Higher Ed reports, as a result of an investigation begun in 2007 by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (then attorney general), in which he suspected universities were “being unduly influenced by perks like free or subsidized overseas travel and commissions on student fees.”

As the number of students going abroad has more than tripled in the past two decades, hundreds of unscrupulous ventures have popped up to meet students’ demand for the broadening of horizons (and, OK, the lowering of the drinking age). The red flags of a foreign-exchange flimflam artist can be pretty easy to spot if you know what you’re looking for. But many of those warning signs become obscured once a program has been given a university’s official partnership and good name.

It breaks my heart when I read about study-abroad scams, because while I’m cynical about academia in general, my devotion to the transformative power of studying overseas is unmatched. I left for Berlin in January 1997 with a mediocre grasp of German and a less-than-mediocre set of real-world survival skills; I returned six months later fluent in the language, well-traveled through Central Europe, and an eyewitness to the once-in-a-lifetime reconstruction of post-wall Berlin. Indeed, without study abroad I wouldn’t even exist; my parents met each other studying in Italy.

Many returning studiers-abroad have tales to tell, unexpected new skill sets forged under comfort-zone-free duress. Even for the jingoistic jokers who spend the whole time speaking English with other Americans, living in a different culture can be a transformative experience, one that makes their personal worlds a little bit bigger, and them more whole as a result.

Thus, there is no college student for whom I wouldn’t recommend some sort of experience abroad—but because it’s more popular than ever, and because what’s happening in New York is certainly happening elsewhere (but without the legislation to protect students), it is more important than ever to understand that not all programs are alike.

By far the safest and most rewarding programs are going to be those developed at your home institution (or as part of a multischool consortium), by your school’s own academic faculty, in partnership with prestigious universities and language schools overseas. These programs will, of course, offer fun and dynamic classes—taught, usually, by professors you already know (and like). But just as importantly, these programs generally include the incidentals that make up a valuable study-abroad experience: cultural outings to museums and monuments; train and bus tickets; hostel accommodation on trips, and longer-term housing in international dormitories or with host families. And, a priceless bonus: During this sort of program, you will invariably witness your favorite professor drunk.

But homegrown programs are expensive to fund (they involve giving money to foreign-language departments, which is the exact opposite of most universities’ current drive to obliterate them), so sometimes it’s hard to find one at your own school. In that case, another rewarding way to study abroad without getting ripped off is to enroll directly at a foreign university, which is usually state-subsidized, and thus exponentially cheaper than its American counterpart. Granted, this is for the intrepid, as it requires fluency in the language and a willingness to grapple with Kafkaesque overseas bureaucracies. You’ll be on your own for housing, you won’t have a preset cohort of new BFFs, and if something goes horribly awry (like, for example, you get accused of murdering your roommate), you may not know where to go for help.

So if no homegrown program is available, and direct enrollment is too daunting, where can you turn? How can you avoid signing up for a dud? You can always check out one of the many different websites that rate private study-abroad programs. But don’t just look at the “grade,” look at how it got that way. Is it artificially lowered because of one mom who can’t stop complaining that her darling was kicked out of Thailand for no reason other than tripping balls in the airport? Is it inflated by obvious plants from program lackeys? Do the reviews ostensibly from actual students contain enough capitalization and syntax errors to be authentic?

There are other warning signs, too. One friend of mine, an instructor at an American university’s study-abroad outpost in France, cautions that the corporate-run programs “tend to have flashy websites with stock photos and relatively little information.” And although these “programs” appear to be “proper educational establishments (with a name like ‘institute’ or ‘college’ in their titles),” another red flag is to watch out for is “a specialized curriculum in, say, ‘international business’ or something equally vague.” And the biggest danger in scam programs like these, he cautions, is that they offer “little to nothing in the way of support services”—no help with housing, visas, or cultural events, not to mention backup or resources should something go wrong. Rather, “They just cash your tuition check and wish you good luck”—although one thing they’re very good at doing is “advising you how to apply your financial aid dollars to the tuition bill.” 

The reason, then, that legislation like New York’s is important, is that when a university officially affiliates with a private study-abroad program (enticed by the bonus of “teachers traveling free!”), the program receives an immediate air of legitimacy. When a scam suddenly comes with Big State U’s insignia—and Big State U is only too eager to arbitrate itself a massive secret discount—students may not realize their mistake until they’re thousands of miles from home and thousands more dollars in debt.

Private programs are not all scams—they’re not even mostly scams—but enough are that I’d be suspicious of any program not run directly through an accredited university, with its affiliated faculty. I would be even more suspicious of any program that can’t immediately supply program alumni from your own school, ready to talk to you and give the program an honest endorsement.

That is why I hope that other states follow suit in requiring study-abroad transparency. College is more expensive, comes with less of a payoff, and is less fun than ever. But studying abroad is one of the few collegiate experiences remaining in which you might just get something priceless and eternal for all of that money. College is enough of a rip-off; you shouldn’t get ripped off when studying abroad, too.