Lawmakers take closer look at study abroad

Two bipartisan bills would mandate more transparency on students’ safety overseas.

Lawmakers take closer look at study abroad

Haley Hansen

State leaders are urging Minnesota colleges and universities to publish safety records of study abroad programs, citing poor safety and the need for transparency between schools and the public.

While the University of Minnesota says it already does its best to ensure students’ safety, many agree the change is necessary and students and parents will benefit by having access to evaluate the risks in global areas.

“We have tremendous oversight over almost everything,” said the bill’s author, Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka. “But when it comes to sending students into other countries, we don’t have that oversight.

The University currently only reports incidents like deaths, accidents, illnesses and sexual assaults upon students’ requests. The proposal mandates that schools display the statistics online and report them to the Office of Higher Education. Without passing state-set marks, institutions would not be able to grant academic credit for the travel experiences.

Sheryl Hill founded the Clear Cause Foundation in 2011 to increase safety on study abroad trips after her son died in on a People to People Ambassador Program trip in Japan, and she strongly supports the bill.

“I think you have the right to know when you are escorted into a foreign country what the safety record is of the organization you are trusting your life and your future to,” Hill said.

Ann Hubbard, who works for the American Institute for Foreign Study, said she agrees with the purpose behind the policy change but noted it doesn’t necessarily guarantee students’ safety abroad.

 “It’s not a directly preventative measure,” she said.

Program Director for the University’s Global Programs and Strategy Alliance Stacey Tsantir said the University already maintains safe practices and the legislation won’t significantly change operations for programs administered by the University, like those from the Learning Abroad Center.

“Our processes and policies are very strong, and we are very proud of the way that we handle education abroad [like] health and safety and security,” she said.

The University requires students and faculty traveling abroad to obtain insurance approved by the Office of Risk Management. The University also endorses the recommendations from the Forum on Education Abroad’s Good Practices, which creates standards for national programs.

“Even without the requirement to report,” Hubbard said. “[Schools] do all kinds of things trying to make certain people on our programs are safe.”

Tsantir said other schools might have a harder time with the change due to their track record of poor practices in the past.

Sen. David Osmek, R-Eden Prairie, who is  co-sponsoring the bill, said students and parents will benefit from the change because they’ll be able to better analyze potential risks associated with studying abroad.

“It’s important that families have the information on safety records for these programs so they can make informed decisions,” said Rep. Yvonne Selcer, DFL-Minnetonka, who is heading the House’s version of the bill.

Osmek said by increasing transparency, students shouldn’t feel inhibited to make plans to study abroad, and they should instead feel more secure.

Universities with high marks on the reports could potentially use the evidence as a marketing tool, Osmek said, proving its programs are safe, and schools with poor statistics should re-evaluate their procedures. 

Jodi Malmgren, director of international and off-campus studies at St. Olaf College, began discussions by meeting with legislators in the fall. She co-chairs a committee for Minnesota Study Abroad Professionals.

New York and other states are considering similar proposals aiming to increase transparency, but Malmgren said more can be done at the national level.