The first thing that pops up on Arcadia University's Web site is a snapshot of a smiling young woman in front of the red-tiled Duomo in Florence, Italy, with the message, "Get Your Passport Ready."

What viewers don't know is that Arcadia not only has an aggressive program to send its own students abroad, but runs a $37 million nonprofit that brokers trips for about 300 other schools.

"We're serious about our commitment to international learning," said David Larson, who runs Arcadia's Center for Education Abroad.

So are a lot of other colleges, which are using glossy brochures and the promise of a transformative experience to push students to become "global learners."

Now, a surge in the study-abroad industry - an assortment of college-based programs, companies and non-profits that run thousands of programs worldwide - has led to increased scrutiny of its financial relationships to colleges.

In August, the New York Attorney General's Office, fresh off a student loan investigation, subpoenaed 10 operations, including Arcadia, as it looks into possible conflicts of interest.

At issue is the possible "flow of money from study-abroad programs to schools in order for them to get preferential treatment," said Benjamin Lawsky, a special assistant to New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.

Some companies may have offered perks to sign up students, such as volume discounts and free trips for school administrators, he said. The probe also focuses on whether providers have "exclusive agreements" with schools requiring students to use those programs or forfeit credit.

In such cases, choice would be limited "basically to benefit the school" and not the student, Lawsky said.

Another questioned practice is charging students regular tuition when the school may be paying less to the study-abroad provider, he said.

Arcadia's Larsen said the company does not provide perks or volume discounts, or engage in anything that could be construed as unethical. "That's not the kind of thing we do," he said.

Subpoenaed with Arcadia were other third-party providers: the Institute for Study Abroad at Butler University, the American Institute of Foreign Study, the Institute for the International Education of Students, and the Danish Institute for Study Abroad.

This fall the inquiry expanded to AustraLearn, the School for International Training, Cultural Experiences Abroad, International Studies Abroad, and the Council on International Educational Exchange, based in Portland, Maine.

Steve Trooboff, president of the Council on International Educational Exchange, said the industry is "as honest, as clean, as above board, as transparent as anything could possibly be."

"When you ask students of all the things they did when they were in college . . . study abroad always comes out as the first and best thing," he said.

The Council on International Educational Exchange does not use discounts, free trips or exclusive agreements to get more customers, but does offer rebates to help colleges defray the costs of arranging overseas study, Trooboff said.

Admissions officials acknowledge the receipt of such rebates for placing students in programs for foreign study. But the rebates are for helping with administrative details, not for volume of placements.

In 2005-06, 223,534 U.S. students went abroad, 8.5 percent more than the previous year, according to a report released last month by the Institute of International Education, a nonprofit in New York. Over the past 10 years, international study has grown by 144 percent.

Honing language skills used to be the goal of most overseas study. Now many institutions view learning abroad as "essential for a 21st century education," said Temple University president Ann Hart.

Some schools require a semester abroad, while Hart is so determined to nudge students out of North Philadelphia that she is paying for their passports and offering 50 $2,500 scholarships for international study.

While England and Italy are still top destinations, schools are encouraging students to venture further afield to study political change in South Africa, Mandarin in China, or the Dalai Lama's teachings in India.

At the University of Pennsylvania, "we try to encourage going to some place other than London," said Geoffrey Gee, director of Penn Study Abroad, which promotes trips to non-traditional destinations.

Pennsylvania State University, whose 2,168 foreign learners were the fourth-highest total in the country, gets a 5 percent rebate from the Council on International Educational Exchange and $500 per student from Arcadia, said John Keller, director of Penn State's Education Abroad office. The money saved is put into an international scholarship fund.

Arcadia's program is one of the oldest and largest in the country. It started in 1948 when a professor took a small group of women - at what was then called Beaver College and was all female - on a bicycle trip through England to look at postwar restoration.

The small liberal-arts school in Glenside takes pride in sending students around the globe, from the jungle of Equatorial Guinea to a creative writing program in Scotland to a brand-new course on the Summer Olympics in Beijing. Last year, 87 percent of freshmen spent some time studying in a foreign country.

All told, 3,000 Arcadia students attended 100 programs in 14 countries. Its Center for Education Abroad has a full-time staff of 91 and funnels about $1.8 million - 5 percent of revenues - into the college's endowment.

It does not offer any perks to college officials who arrange foreign study opportunities through its nonprofit program, Larsen said.

Arcadia's twice-annual familiarization trips for college staff are "not a vacation - and we try to get participants to pay some of the cost," he added.

At Arcadia, freshman can leave the country before they even set foot on campus, spending a year in London, Scotland or Ireland. Or they can take a "preview" tour of London, Scotland or Spain at spring break for the bargain rate of $245 and pick up two credits.

Hilda Rivera, an Arcadia junior, was wowed by what she saw on the preview trip. "It was the highlight of my life," said the biology major from Allentown, who had never left the country before.

That led to a spring semester in Equatorial Guinea in Africa, where she studied butterflies in the only Spanish-speaking country on the continent.

"It was wonderful," she said. "I learned to integrate with other ethnic groups."

Brian Whalen, president of the Forum on Education Abroad at Dickinson College, a group of 270 institutions, defended the current system but said anyone who accepts incentives from program providers "crosses an ethical line."

The Forum on Education Abroad has a set of standards and will release ethical guidelines in January.

Most colleges end up losing money on study-abroad programs, he said.

Dickinson charges $44,764, its standard tuition and room and board, for nearly all its overseas programs. While a student enrolling directly in a foreign school would pay a lot less - a year at the University of Bologna in Italy, for instance, is about $3,500

- the programs provide facilities, housing and meals, staff and cultural excursions.

Dickinson also sends its own professors so they can oversee the program, raising the cost with their salaries, stipend, housing and transportation, plus the costs for replacement faculty.

"Our model is an expensive one," Whalen said.

Public schools such as Penn State charge tuition only, in addition to the cost of the program. The final bill depends on what country students go to. In some cases, they pay less than they would at home.

Students trying to save by going alone may not get school credit.

At the University of Pennsylvania, students must use Penn-affiliated programs, said Gee, director of Penn Study Abroad. If Penn doesn't have a program in a country the student wants to visit, they have to be pre-approved if they want credit and financial aid.

Contact staff writer Kathy Boccella at 610-313-8123 or at kboccella@phillynews.com.