N.Y. State Investigates Harvard Study Abroad Program

Harvard receives subpoena following questions about junkets and other perks

Harvard officials confirmed last week that they received a subpoena from the New York Attorney General’s Office regarding an investigation into how the University approves contracts for its study abroad program.

New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s investigation will examine how contracts with study abroad program providers are awarded and whether universities have received benefits in exchange for providing contracts to a study abroad program.

Regulators have raised questions in the past year over how some providers offer colleges rebates, stipends, junkets, and other perks, arrangements that critics say are questionable when not disclosed.

Other universities that are being investigated include Columbia, Brown, and Northwestern.

Harvard spokesman John D. Longbrake said that the University received the subpoena earlier this month, and that it is still under evaluation. He declined to comment on what information the attorney general was seeking or what practices were under investigation.

The investigation into Harvard and the other universities centers on questions about the relationships between the program providers and the universities, and the manner in which students are billed for study abroad programs.

It remains unclear how seriously Harvard’s study abroad program will be affected by the probe, according to James E. Tierney, a former Maine Attorney General who is now the director of the National State Attorneys General Program at Columbia Law School, because it appears as though the investigation is still in the fact-gathering stage.

“It depends on what he finds out,” said Tierney, referring to Cuomo. “The question is what kind of resolution there would be.”

Tierney, who stressed that he was unfamiliar with the details of the case, added that it is not uncommon for attorneys general to investigate institutions in states other than their own.

“He has the ability to investigate unfair and deceptive practices that have been used against New York residents,” he said. “The basis of his jurisdiction is whether or not New York residents have been deceived or harmed in some way.”

Recent months have seen increased scrutiny regarding the financial practices of study abroad programs.

A report issued last month by the D.C.-based NAFSA: Association of International Educators said that there existed “potentially questionable financial arrangements between institutions and program providers and questionable credit-transfer policies,” and brought to light issues regarding “the challenge of integrating study abroad into all aspects of an institution, and the unique risk-management and quality-control issues inherent in study abroad.”

“All institutions of higher education should have general conflict-of-interest policies, which typically include prohibiting arrangements that result in personal benefit,” the report stated. “Contracts with study abroad programs should be sufficiently clear regarding the details of expected services and payments, and any other additional arrangements between the provider and the university.”

In the past six years, Harvard’s study abroad program has undergone dramatic expansion. Last academic year, 659 students participated in the study abroad program, over a 300 percent increase since 2001, according to the Office of International Programs.

Cuomo, whose office did not respond to repeated requests for comment, previously led an extensive investigation of the student loan industry that forced policy changes both at universities and within the lending industry.

—Staff writer Kevin Zhou can be reached at kzhou@fas.harvard.edu.