State Department Issues Guidance on Student-Recruitment Agents

September 02, 2009

The State Department has waded into the contentious issue of international student recruitment, issuing policy guidance that bars its EducationUSA advising centers from forming partnerships with commercial recruiting agents who have contracts to represent specific American universities.

The document prohibits the 450 centers worldwide, which are the main means through which the government promotes American higher education abroad, from providing "advising services to or with commercial agents," saying that such recruiters lack objectivity and may restrict foreign students' college options.

The guidance was greeted with dismay by some international educators who believe that American colleges need to use agents if they hope to succeed in recruiting students in increasingly competitive markets like China and India. Those educators also argue that it is necessary to regulate that complex field of commercial recruitment, as other countries have done.

But the directive reflects the attitude of many in American higher education, who see the practice of commercial recruiting as improper and even unethical. The idea of awarding commissions to agents to sign up foreign students has long been controversial in the United States, although the practice is commonplace for universities in countries like Australia and Britain.

College associations, such as the National Association for College Admission Counseling, have been critical of the practice, arguing that when recruiters are being paid by colleges, students' interest is no longer their first priority.

Peggy Blumenthal, executive vice president of the Institute of International Education, a nonprofit organization involved in international exchanges, says EducationUSA offices have a mission to represent all of American higher education. "Working with agents narrows that mission and confuses students," said Ms. Blumenthal, whose group runs EducationUSA offices in four countries.

A Growing Concern

A State Department official said the statement was not meant to break new policy ground but to confirm the longstanding requirement that EducationUSA offices provide comprehensive information about opportunities across the American higher-education system. The document was drafted, the official said, in response to the growth in the use of recruiting agents by American colleges and because of concerns raised about their use.

The statement, which was approved by the deputy assistant secretary of state for academic programs and other officials, notes that "many advisers have been approached by commercial recruiters who have requested their assistance and support.

"We believe it is important to establish a uniform, worldwide policy to ensure that agents receive a consistent message from all EducationUSA Centers," the document says.

Mitch Leventhal, president of the American International Recruitment Council, a year-old group that has developed standards of ethical practices and a system for certifying overseas recruiters, said the State Department notice unfairly tars all commercial recruiting agencies. For example, said Mr. Leventhal, who is vice provost for international affairs at the University of Cincinnati, reputable agents work hard to match students with the college that will fit their academic and social needs, not just those with which they have recruitment contracts.

Mr. Leventhal praised EducationUSA offices as "vital" to attract overseas students to American universities, but said that, in a heated global market, third-party agents are needed to help supplement those efforts. In the current economy, in-country agencies may become even more critical, as tight budgets limit the number of recruitment trips university administrators can take abroad.

Mr. Leventhal said he expected that the policy statement would have little actual impact on practices, as many EducationUSA offices already prevent outside recruiters from representing American universities at college fairs or other events.

Still, Mr. Leventhal said, he was disappointed in the tone of the guidance. "I don't think the government should be directing students to agents," he said. "But they should support the development of ethical standards and practices for agents."