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Use of International College Recruiters Remains Controversial

Aug 12, 2011

Many Asian countries do it. So do Canada and the United Kingdom. The use of international college recruiters, also known as commercial agents, is a widespread practice employed by many higher education institutions around the world. But where does the United States stand when it comes to these agents?

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By Harrison Howe

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A Hunger for Internationalization

Let's face it: U.S. colleges and universities want - even need - international students. In 2010, foreign students contributed, in the way of tuition costs and living expenses, a whopping $20 billion to the domestic economy. Many American higher education institutions rely on the income generated by students from abroad. They also benefit from the cultural diversity international students bring to a campus.

But competition from other countries is fierce. While still reigning as the most popular place in the world for students from other countries to come pursue their education, the U.S. has seen a dip in foreign student enrollment over the past ten years (a decline that has only recently begun to see a reversal). Countries like Australia are luring more and more of these students away from the U.S.

Quoted in USA Today in June 2010, Richard W. Ferrin, president and CEO of World Education Group, said, 'Colleges and universities are just hungry to internationalize themselves.' However, many schools may lack the necessary funds to send their own representatives around the world. But what if you could get an outside company to send someone who knows a particular country's culture and language out to recruit students, and pay only when those students actually register? Surely that's a money-saving model.

Enter the international college recruiter.

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Using Good Agents a 'Tremendous Opportunity'

The way it works is simple: U.S. colleges and universities pay a recruiter or agent a commission, based on a percentage of a student's tuition, on a per-student basis. The more individuals an agent can recruit, the more money he or she makes. Illegal in the U.S. when recruiting domestic students, the practice is common - though still in many cases controversial and even questionable - in foreign countries.

A growing number of American schools, however, are turning to the practice, or are at least considering it. Why? Well, the global recession, for one. Many institutions are simply looking for cost-saving strategies in any area. Since an increase in international students remains a goal for many colleges and universities, saving money in this particular area is very attractive.

And for international students, using an agent does have its advantages. Having someone to help with not only visa but college applications can be a plus. As one parent in Jakarta, Indonesia, said recently, 'You have to do things step by step. They guide us.'

The good, or at least comforting, news for the U.S.? In 2008, the nonprofit American International Recruitment Council (AIRC) began to develop standards and issue certifications to agencies in attempts to control what has been a mostly unregulated practice. Some, like Marguerite J. Dennis, Suffolk University's vice president for enrollment and international programs, see this as a 'tremendous opportunity', allowing U.S. institutions to benefit from the use of agents and to employ them with confidence.

Still, doubts remain. And, in some cases, for good reason.

A Question of Ethics

When it comes to agents, everything may not always be on the up-and-up. There are bad agents out there, no doubt about it. One major reason for this is that, despite AIRC's efforts, the business remains largely unregulated. While AIRC has brought some amount of quality control to international recruiting, it is a young organization, and much work remains in the way of formulating regulations and dictating professionalism.

There have been complaints of agents who 'double dip', wherein they charge (at times rather exorbitantly) potential students for their services while also being paid by the college they represent. Sometimes, it is feared that agents may not always be adequately representing a specific college or their programs. Or, some students say, biased agents seeking their commissions can sometimes get too pushy about recruits attending a certain school.

It is these bad eggs who have fed the uncertainty and controversy to the extent that some U.S. organizations have refused to support the whole idea of international recruiters.

The U.S. State Department does not allow agents at any function it hosts. They are also not allowed at any of the department's 400 international college advising centers located in 170 countries around the world. The U.S. Department of Education forbids institutions receiving federal assistance to pay commissions to international recruiters. And the practice is banned by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, a nonprofit organization that helps students seeking to attend college throughout the decision-making process.

For now, though, the choice to use agents rests largely with each individual institution. And whether this results in an increase or decrease in the practice, at least from a U.S. standpoint, remains to be seen.

Find out how New York University has used a growing international presence and online expansion to cement its role as 'the first global network university'.

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