International-Student Recruitment Debate: 6 Views on Agents

Gwenda Kaczor for The Chronicle

June 16, 2011

As American colleges look to increase international enrollments, in part to bolster their bottom lines, many are turning to independent contractors, known as agents, to represent them overseas. This practice has proved controversial, however. Critics argue that recruiters are often more interested in making money than serving students or institutions. They also say that the way many of them are paid, on a per-student commission basis, encourages unethical behavior. Proponents say agents are cost-effective and can best assist foreign students because they speak the same language and understand the local culture. While there have been examples of abuses, due diligence by institutions and a broader reliance on standards and certification procedures can curb bad behavior, the proponents say.

This debate took on a new urgency last month when the National Association for College Admission Counseling, or NACAC, proposed forbidding members from using commission-based agents abroad. (NACAC policy and federal law prohibit commission-based recruitment in the United States.) The association's Board of Directors is expected to vote on the proposed policy statement in July.

To help shed light on the controversy, The Chronicle asked six education experts for their views. Their essays appear below.

Agents play a much needed role in higher education, and bad practices can be weeded out, argues John Deupree of the American International Recruitment Council.

Colleges would be doing a "disservice" to themselves and their students if they did not take a stand against commission-based agents, says Jim L. Miller of NACAC.

Agents offer a valuable benefit to both students and colleges, says an admissions officer at the University of Cincinnati.

Universities can find better—and more ethical—ways to recruit abroad, argues an admissions officer at the University of Denver.

An agent in India says the debate in the United States is 15 years out of date—and misses the point.

A counselor at a private high school in Shanghai says agents have proliferated in China, blurring the lines between educational assistance and making money.

Have your say: Comment on any or all of these points of view here.

Agent Is Not a 4-Letter Word

By John Deupree

In the debate over the use of international-recruitment agents, what hasn't been widely explored is the complexity of the forces that are driving universities to hire them and students to seek them out. While it is simple to paint these forces as being based on either greed or ignorance, in fact they are based largely on a demand from colleges for improving the recruitment experience and the very real need of a trusted, in-depth support network for international students that recognizes their unique challenges.

Existing international-recruitment models often have three limitations: They require an upfront investment in staff time and travel with little or no guarantee of return; their lead time for success is significant; and the results are often unpredictable. While simply raising the numbers of international students on a campus was once a sufficient goal, many institutions now developing a strategic internationalization plan find that a more traditional approach no longer meets the needs of the institution as a whole. For example, while large blocks of engineering programs may be filled with international students, humanities and social-science programs frequently have few or none. Is this because there are no Chinese students interested in history or anthropology—or is it because traditional international-recruitment efforts that wrestle with both time and monetary limitations can only afford to focus on the easy targets?

The simple truth is that most international-recruitment dollars do not stretch far enough to find students who might meet a wide array of institutional goals, such as geographic, cultural, or religious diversity, or even ability to pay tuition.

It should therefore be no surprise that many institutions seeking to adopt new recruitment strategies that serve all of their departmental needs, and that can be tracked to gauge the success of their investment, are trying a new tack. They are learning that relying on an agency partner that has cultural and linguistic ties to a specific country to send them the students they need, based on the criteria set through an institutional planning process, can add considerable breadth to their efforts. Institutions are learning that paying a fee derived from the tuition a student pays upon enrollment shifts the uncertainty of investing in an upfront cost, with a vague expectation of returns down the road, to one that is based on strategic goals and paid upon success in identifying the right student.

Now consider the point of view of students around the world. It is far too easy to overlook the fact that students in most countries do not grow up with the same expectation or even understanding of educational choice that is afforded most middle-class American students. While the typical American collegebound student expects to begin receiving hundreds of brochures at a very young age, that is not the case for students in most other countries where access to higher education is much more limited. The very idea of opening a college guide or debating the merits of an urban university versus a rural college is simply not the reality for most international students.

On top of navigating the very concept of educational choice, they also face the need to decipher complex admissions and testing policies and applications in a language that is not their own. Add the fact that paying for an American higher education is perhaps the biggest investment most families may ever make, and the very understandable anxiety of parents about to send their son or daughter not to a bucolic campus within driving distance of home, but to an unknown location halfway around the world, is it any wonder that both the students and parents choose to turn for help to someone local? Is it any wonder that they would prefer to get in-depth support from someone they know, or who speaks their language, rather than counting entirely on the charming American institutional representative they met at a college fair and who may not reappear in their city for two or three more years, or an embassy adviser whose time and scope are limited?

Given these two realities—on the one hand, a perceived need for better strategic planning in international recruitment by institutions, and on the other, the strong need for a helping hand for the students and parents seeking an American (or British or Australian) education—there is clearly a demand for professional intermediary organizations that can serve both student and institution. The great irony is that our very inattention to an obvious demand has allowed it to create a sort of gray market. There is no doubt that a poor reputation for agency-student interaction is in many cases richly deserved. Anyone who has ever been in an Asian marketplace knows that anything can be negotiated for a price and that the buyer always needs to beware. It should therefore be no surprise that the marketplace for students operates with the same lack of protection for both students and institutions seeking them.

Is the solution, however, to ban the marketplace (and is it even possible to do this?) or to conveniently ignore the ugliness factor? Alternatively, in the spirit of fair-trade coffee, why not attempt to bring some order to it?

The way forward from this debate is therefore to set standards, hold agencies accountable to them, and promote a dialogue on professionalism through which agencies can hear that excessive fees, document fraud, and unqualified students will not be tolerated, and institutions commit to holding their agency partners accountable for bringing them students with qualifications they expect. If successful, both institutions and students will benefit.

John Deupree is executive director of the American International Recruitment Council, an association of higher-education institutions and international-recruiting agencies, which sets standards and conducts a certification process.


Recruitment Agents: in the Best Interest of Students, or of Colleges?

By Jim L. Miller

When I went to college a few decades ago, my small liberal-arts college in Wisconsin enrolled a few dozen foreign students. Most of them were attracted by a nearly full-tuition scholarship intended to diversify the campus and serve the global mission of offering opportunity to those who had no other access to a higher education. It provided them with a great education and enhanced my experience, as well. I'm thankful to this day that we were classmates.

Since then the number of foreign students in the United States has quadrupled, and international recruitment worldwide has been transformed into a multibillion-dollar business. We're still interested in diversifying the campus, but we're also interested in improving the bottom line. Enrollment equals revenue. There's nothing inherently wrong with that equation. We need resources to fuel our academic engines and serve our students and other constituents. If by enrolling international students we can do good while doing well, everyone benefits, right?

That's generally true, provided the recruited students attend well-matched institutions that give them high-quality experiences to suit their aspirations, means, and abilities. In order to arrive at this great match, our institutions need admissions counselors who are oriented to serve the student's needs while advancing the goals of the institution.

Throughout my 30 years as an admissions counselor, dean of admissions, and vice president for enrollment, my colleagues and I have been guided by principles of good practice that are adopted by the membership of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, or NACAC. A fundamental objective of these standards is to minimize incentives that might tempt the counselor or recruiter to compromise her professionalism by advising the student to make an enrollment choice without regard for the student's interest.

Over time and seemingly without fail, commissions and recruitment have proved a combustible mix, to the detriment of the student. That's why NACAC admission recruiters agree (and are bound by law domestically) not to accept from universities any compensation contingent on the number of students enrolled.

We are now confronted with the issue of whether that standard applies to the recruitment of students from outside U.S. borders. Some institutions, particularly those seeking a rapid expansion in foreign enrollments and/or those with limited staff resources, have decided that their interests are best served by contracting with agents who represent them to students in target countries. Some, but not all, of those agents are compensated by payments the college makes on the basis of the number of students enrolled. This approach is especially attractive to college administrators because it is essentially a no-risk endeavor. If you enroll the students, you get the tuition and pay some of it to the agent (often 10 percent of the first-year tuition). If no students enroll, there's no cost.

But should international-student recruitment be a "no risk" proposition? Why wouldn't an institution bear some risk for its recruitment activities?

While the agent and the institution derive clear benefits from commissioned arrangements, we have to ask what is in the best interests of the students and the institution over the long term? On the heels of some egregious abuses at American for-profit colleges, and after recent examples of international students who were misled by agents, we would be doing a disservice to our profession and our institutions if we did not take a stand on the types of situations that arise from this practice. Each of my colleagues should ask themselves: "Is this what we would want for our own children?" Were it my daughter, the answer would be "no."

Jim L. Miller is president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling and coordinator of enrollment research at the University of Wisconsin at Superior.


Recruitment Is the Reality. Let’s Make Sure It’s Done Right 

By Ronald B. Cushing

In 2005, the University of Cincinnati made a bold decision to develop our first international-recruitment strategy. At the center of our plan was the decision to actively use agents and to compensate them on a commission basis. In doing so, the university became the first major research university in the United States to openly adopt agent-based international-student recruiting as a strategy, and at the same time it helped develop standards for using agents.

The decision to use agents was made for several reasons. First, the challenge of trying to be engaged in several major markets at the same time is daunting from a resource perspective. Our staff can be present only in a few locations a few days a year. Having trained and trusted representatives in each market is effective from a cost and operations perspective.

Second, trained representatives provide prospective foreign students with the information they need to select the appropriate educational program and institution. There are over 4,000 institutions of higher education in America. Prospective students are faced with the formidable task of navigating the Internet for information about their options, and few have firsthand knowledge of any U.S. institutions. Understandably, these students seek the services of recruiting offices staffed by local bilingual counselors, in students' local time zone, to help them select the most appropriate institution. It's safe to say that most prospective international students would have no idea that the University of Cincinnati has many programs ranked in the top 10 nationally, that we pioneered cooperative education—in which students alternate academic periods with periods of professionally paid work experiences related directly to their majors—or that our campus is rated as one of the best in the country. Having highly trained representatives who can speak to the quality of our programs, our campus, and our city is a benefit to our institution.

Third, fraud is prevalent in many markets. We are confident that transcripts, letters of recommendation, essays, and other documents are legitimate when they come from our representatives.

Finally, the use of recruiting representatives is prevalent in many markets. Even if your institution doesn't use them, a good percentage of your students do. Research collected by the International Graduate Insight Group in the International Student Barometer, a survey of international students studying around the world, indicated that 18 percent of students (over 54,000) surveyed used recruiting representatives. We reasoned that if many of our students were using representatives anyway, we would be better served selecting those representatives ourselves, training them, and letting our students know who our trusted recruiting partners were.

While the use of recruiting representatives has been successful for us, institutions should understand that it requires substantial investment. Selecting and training the right representatives takes time and resources. Institutions need to evaluate agency operations, collect data from students on satisfaction, and invest in the infrastructure. At the university, we have established a dedicated international-admission office, developed a global scholarship program, contracted with a third-party intensive-English provider, collected data through the International Student Barometer, and developed an international-student prospectus. In China and India, we have even gone a step further. In these countries, we have hired country coordinators who are in-country and provide training, oversight, and evaluation of our representative network.

The university has also helped lead a national movement for industry standards. In 2008, the American International Recruitment Council was formed by our former vice provost, Mitch Leventhal, to develop standards for international-student recruitment and a certification process for international-student recruiting agencies.

As the agent debate, continues I'd like to call on those institutions that use agents to join the council. Ultimately the answer to this debate is not to prohibit commission-based recruitment. The answer involves setting high professional standards and best practices for institutions and the agencies themselves. The National Association for College Admission Counseling needs to understand that there is a place for commission-based recruitment in U.S. higher education provided it is done responsibly. The association, and for that matter other professional organizations whose members recruit internationally, should join the council in helping to establish these standards and best practices.

Ronald B. Cushing is director of international services for the University of Cincinnati.


Why Overseas Agents Don’t Work

By Marjorie S. Smith

I am firmly against the practice of paying commissions to independent agents for recruiting international students. So after my boss returned from a conference 18 months ago having learned in a session that "everyone else" appears to be paying commissions and that agents were "here to stay," I have been watching the debate with great interest. The last few months have convinced me that, to my great relief, it is not a foregone conclusion that all universities are or will be using agents.

The National Association for College Admission Counseling plans to decide whether to prohibit its membership from compensating international agents. I wholeheartedly endorse the prohibition. We should fight to preserve the integrity of the college-selection process.

Here are some of the most frequent reasons given for using agents—and why I believe such reasons don't hold water:

If we didn't pay agents, we wouldn't have any international students.

Not so. In fact, shortsighted strategies like this one can very quickly bring you long-term headaches that end up costing you plenty in reputation and bad PR.

My advice: Be strategic. Take whatever you might consider paying agents and invest that in a well-trained and equipped staff who understand your institution's enrollment plan, international mission, global student-mobility trends, and geopolitical factors affecting such trends. Your staff must be able to recite and explain your institution's admission policies and distinctive characteristics, and harness the power of the Internet and social media to reach out to prospective students. This investment will have many dividends, not the least of which will be well-informed and well-matched international matriculants who become lifelong boosters.

We can't afford to send university staff members around the world to recruit.

You can't afford not to. Meeting students and parents on their turf is a significant indication of your university's desire to focus on and attract them. Meeting secondary-school counselors, U.S. State Department education advisers, and, yes, the right kind of agents (see below) can initiate and cement important long-term relations that become pivotal to your international-enrollment plan.

And cost? Here is the calculation I use: One three-week trip to Asia that includes school and government-agency visits, fairs, alumni events, and all shipping and travel costs is around $30,000. This is less than what one student's educational costs would be at many American colleges—for one year. The mileage you would get out of doing this on an annual basis would pay for itself very quickly.

The British and Australians are doing it, so why not us, too?

Both countries have damaged the reputations of their higher-education systems by using agents, with the perception being that they are seeking students overseas primarily for the money. The United States is not immune to this damage, and no amount of ethical standards adopted by American associations will stop the charlatans. Through this debate, however, we are in a position to call out the pitfalls and clearly condemn, for the world to see, the use of compensation-based agents through our professional associations. In my perfect (and yes, perhaps naïve) world, only institutions that forbid commission-based agent use would be approved by the U.S. government to issue I-20 student-visa forms.

So, who are the "right" agents? Those who work for and are paid by the students and their families. The University of Denver works with these agents willingly, closely, and frequently. They operate on the American model of "independent counselor"—those who work to find the best college choices for their student-clients, out of the entire universe of choices. In this way, the agent works for students to ensure their best interests are in the forefront. Conversely, when the agent works for colleges or universities, student choices will necessarily be reduced to only those institutions from which the agent can profit. This pollutes the process and puts profit before the students' best interests.

Marjorie S. Smith is associate dean of international-student admission at the University of Denver.


Learn From the British Experience 

By Victor Rao

In 1996, when I was working at the British Council, Britain's international cultural-relations agency other employees and I asked ourselves questions about agents that will sound familiar today. "Do we need to work with agents?" "Aren't British universities by themselves good enough to attract students?" "What do agents offer students that adds value to the recruitment process?" And so on.

The British Council had a "no agents" policy. In India, where I worked for the council in its Kolkata office, we represented a number of higher-education institutions, and with a network of libraries around India that attracted thousands of students, we were best placed to meet the recruitment needs of British universities. Or so we thought.

While contemplating the question about agents, our office in Kolkata looked at the recruitment industry. It saw that Global Reach, a small company representing a few Australian universities, was growing by leaps and bounds. In spite of representing Australian institutions that were quite new to the market, Global Reach was breathing down the necks of the British universities, and the market share for Australian education was growing rapidly. The Australians had in place a good policy for regulating agents, while we were still debating whether to allow agents access to British institutions. The rest is history. The British Council soon adopted a pro-agent policy and began training agents and certifying those who successfully completed the training.

Having experienced that turnaround 15 years ago, I see the present debate in the United States over the use of agents as a nonissue and one that seems very dated. I now work for Global Reach, where I've seen firsthand what agents can offer a university.

There is no doubt that agents with their network of offices have a much wider reach than do many universities and, in cultures where a personal touch is needed, they provide a very efficient, ethical, and useful role. Many of the top agents have been in business for over 20 years and maintain a high degree of professionalism and integrity in serving students. So for the present debate to tarnish the whole lot of agents with a black brush is not only sad, but foolish.

Over the years, contracts between agents and universities have evolved so that the agreements better protect the institutions from any agent who might use unfair or unethical practices.

So the debate should not be about good agents or bad agents. It should be about learning from the lessons of countries like Australia, Britain, and New Zealand that have successfully managed agent relationships to their mutual benefit. As with any industry, some rogue elements will join in the business if the going is good. Being constantly vigilant and checking periodically to ensure that both the parties are following the spirit of an agreement will go a long way in building a healthy and prosperous relationship.

American institutions should stop raising a bogeyman over what is a resolved issue around the world. Good agents are here to stay and deliver a good service. Look around at what the other countries have done to manage agents and adopt these sound practices.

Victor Rao is general manager of Global Reach, a student-recruitment company. He worked at the British Council from 1991 to 2008.


In China, the Work of Agents Is "Far from Pretty"

By Shaun McElroy

For six years, I have worked at the Shanghai American School, a private high school in China. Over that time, I have seen a steady expansion of agents who work with Chinese students looking to study in the United States. What I see is far from pretty.

A growing number of people see the student market as ripe for the picking. With no counseling training, limited or no connections to professional associations, they set up in prime locations and offer one-stop shopping, advising students on how to get into American colleges and offering test preparations, assistance with interviews and writing applications, and even visa procurement.

Few Chinese high schools have college counselors, so naturally, students want help—and they (and their parents) are easy prey to questionable services.

For example, fees for college-counseling services in Shanghai range from 80,000 to 300,000 in Chinese currency (approximately $12,000 to $46,000) for a VIP service, which includes face time with an American specialist. However, actual interaction with the specialist is usually limited and most of the time is spent with Chinese employees with no real background or training in placing students at the right American college.

Indeed, The New York Times reports that there are almost 400 agencies registered with the Ministry of Education in China. For every registered one, there are probably three or four that are not registered. But even registering guarantees little in the way of quality or transparency. The fact is, there is too much money at stake.

Add to the mix incentive pay in the form of commissions, and you have a recipe for a full-on educational meltdown. With significant commission money on the line, agents are known to write students' application essays for them, pose as the applicants in instant-messenger interviews with the universities, and employ other unethical practices.

Clearly this needs fixing. I offer three suggestions:

  • Colleges must take responsibility for their own recruitment. If they do use agents, they must perform due diligence and hold agents to high standards and not pay on a commission scale.
  • The American International Recruitment Council, which sets standards for and certifies international recruiters, must toughen its accreditation practices if it is to be taken seriously. Steps should include requiring all members to provide full disclosure of relationships on their Web sites and not allowing agents to charge students and universities for their services (so-called double dipping); and
  • University leaders must join with U.S. departments of State and Commerce to work with local businesses to improve educational practices through training, certification, and licensure.

I have been accused of being anti-agent. I am not. I am anti-exploitation, and I am pro-education. Education is a sacred trust and the greatest asset the West has for bridging cultural divides. But agents threaten to drive a stake in the goodwill that educational opportunities afford.

Shaun McElroy is a high-school counselor at the Shanghai American School.