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    May 2016

    Canceling Study Abroad Programs

    image: study abroad student with backpack

    When is canceling a study abroad program warranted? Widespread media coverage of the Zika virus in Central America and terrorist attacks in Western Europe are just two recent events leading families and institutions to reconsider international travel. The decision to cancel or alter programs should be based on an objective factual analysis and the institution’s risk tolerance.

    Assess the Risk

    The decision to modify, suspend, or cancel an international program should be based on impartial evidence rather than sensational media accounts or unsubstantiated perceptions. To research concerns about health, safety, or security issues, consider information from these sources:

    Some institutions recognize certain events as bellwethers of dangerous conditions, such as:

    • State Department Travel Warnings
    • CDC Level 3 travel health warnings
    • Peace Corps activity, such as countrywide suspensions

    A complete risk assessment should include interviews with individuals and programs “on the ground.” With programs run by third-party providers, talk to the providers’ health, safety, and security liaison. Also, contact peer institutions with travelers in the area to learn what they are experiencing and share intelligence.

    Consider Options

    There’s no bright line rule for altering or canceling a study abroad program; the decision should be based on the outcome of the risk assessment and the institution’s tolerance for risk. Based on the risk assessment, institutions can consider risk mitigation strategies such as travel and curfew restrictions, requiring use of bug spray or nets in areas with mosquito-borne health concerns, consulting the national security apparatus within the country, or requiring travelers to carry a phone or contact card with important emergency numbers.

    Remember that canceling a program is just one option when security conditions change. Program administrators may decide to:

    • Alter the program to mitigate risk
    • Alter the program but prepare to leave
    • Not make any changes to the program

    Communicate Your Policies and Decision

    Following an international incident, many travelers and families will consult your website. Travelers and their families value proactive communication, transparency, and consistency from home institutions and host providers in the event of an emergency. Ensure that information is easy to find and understand. The Michigan State University policy includes an emergency assistance phone number. The Loyola University New Orleans policy explains that faculty and students will be evacuated according to a plan developed with experts such as the U.S. Embassy and State Department. At Northwestern University, students who refuse to evacuate lose their student status and evacuation insurance coverage.

    People will also consult your websites before emergencies occur. The Rutgers University policy reserves the institution’s right to cancel upcoming programs. The Iowa State University policy outlines committees that analyze risk management and safety concerns when making program cancelation decisions. In addition, carefully plan your communication strategy about whether or how unused trip fees will be refunded. The North Carolina State University policy explains the difference between recoverable and unrecoverable costs to travelers. 


    Northwestern University: 
    Monitoring World Events
    Study Abroad Refund Policies

    Michigan State University: 
    Study Abroad Risk and Security Assessment Committee (RSAC)
    Policies Regarding State Department Travel Warnings

    By Joe Vossen, risk management counsel


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