THE BLOG

Agent Provocateur

06/12/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

At a Hunan restaurant in Flushing, Queens, members of the newly formed Chinese Returnees International (CRI) suck on spicy spare ribs and quaff green tea. They've come for camaraderie and conversation--but they also have loftier goals.

"Our primary concern is to make an easier road for overseas Chinese students who want to go back to China, but we also want to make it easier for those in China who wish to study in the U.S.," says CRI member Sue Wang, a graduate of the Michigan State University. "We share our experiences with Chinese students who want to study here. We encourage them to try American universities and talk about all the ways they can get here."

Last year, the number of international students attending American institutions hit an all-time high. International students contribute $18 billion to the U.S. economy; their full-fee tuition subsidizes many American students' educations. Culturally, they internationalize campuses and increase diversity--laudable goals for colleges and universities aiming to prepare students for a globalized world. But as American institutions face an increasingly competitive global education market and an aging domestic population, discussion regarding international student recruitment is rarely as civilized as the one over dinner in Queens.

"Anonymous critics are slinging Molotov cocktails on message boards," says Mitch Leventhal, vice chancellor for global affairs at the State University of New York.

Leventhal co-founded the controversial American International Recruitment Council (AIRC), a non-profit that works with various organizations to screen and certify commission-based international student recruiters in a process similar to college accreditation.

AIRC institutional members--accredited post-secondary institutions--and non-member colleges and universities alike provide AIRC-certified agencies with their admission requirements. These agencies charge prospective students a nominal fee but make commissions from the institutions on each admitted student. AIRC institutional members are not bound to work with AIRC-certified agents alone, but Leventhal thinks they will eventually develop a strong preference to do so.
Australia pioneered incentive-based recruiting. The UK embraced it. Although expressing reluctance due to ethical concerns, American institutions facing budget cuts have increasingly turned to agents in recent years. But the relationship has been troubled. Many agents charge students thousands of dollars and use dishonest means to forward their applicants. It's time to draw up ethical standards and regulate the practice, says Leventhal. So far, eight agencies with offices in 32 countries have gained certification. Ninety colleges and universities have signed on as AIRC institutional members.

But AIRC has drawn ire from critics who say incentive-based agents can't represent students' best interests. They charge that schools unwilling to devote resources to recruitment probably haven't mustered the effort to create internationally friendly campuses.

"Commission-based recruitment will corrupt the admissions business and turn it into used cars sales," says Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO). In mid-March, AACRAO released a Statement of Professional Ethics and Practice that called for its members to avoid recruiting practices that would not be ethical or legal in the recruitment of domestic students.

The Higher Education Act prohibits compensation-based recruiting of students who qualify for federal financial aid, but the law doesn't apply to international students since they aren't eligible for federal aid. Opponents of commission-based recruiting like AACRAO say history has demonstrated U.S. institutions shouldn't engage in practices overseas that would be illegal here. For example, in the 1970s, American companies claimed bribery and corruption were part of doing business abroad, but the U.S. government ultimately disagreed and enacted the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

Incentive-based recruiting inspires vitriol because it questions higher education's purpose. The U.S. Department of State has traditionally framed education as a diplomatic tool rather than as a commodity. But if this paradigm shifted, "the whole notion of how we promote, build and grow education would take on a very different tone," says Mark Shay, regional director for North America at IDP Education, one of the eight agencies certified by AIRC.

America's international student population is only 3.7% of the total student population. With help from agents, supporters say, the U.S. could comfortably increase that figure to 15% without becoming overly dependent on foreign students and stimulate local economies in the process.
"Many schools are in terribly economically depressed areas. Towns are competing to build an ethanol plant or a new federal prison because it creates jobs," Leventhal says. "Isn't it better to create jobs through schools?"

Even if his message resonates with higher education associations, chances are they won't help make the pitch for AIRC. Most cooperate with EducationUSA, a global network of more than 450 advising centers supported by the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs that offer objective information about U.S. higher education. In September 2009, the State Department issued policy guidance banning EducationUSA from working with commercial agents.

"You can't have two faces on this," says Judy Irwin, former director of international programs and services for the American Association of Community Colleges. "What individual colleges do is their own business, but the associations have to be careful about playing sides."

While standards for foreign agents are better than no standards, says Peggy Blumenthal, executive vice president of the Institute of International Education, students are still best served by knowing all the possibilities rather than being sold on a school.

"Agents thrive in cultures that believe middlemen are a necessary part of life, but they aren't necessary," she says.

Chen Zhe, a 28-year-old from Inner Mongolia, knows that. But she still paid a Beijing agency $2,000 to help her find an MBA program that "didn't require work experience."
"I was aware going through an agency would limit my choices, but I didn't want all the trouble of writing personal statements and hunting down recommendation letters," she says. "My agent did all that for me and coached me on the visa interview."

Chen's frankness betrays a deficiency in the recruiting debate. For all the handwringing over ethical standards and the commodification of education, the fact remains that many international students are happy to pay agents for no-hassle access to a Western education--whether in the U.S., the UK or elsewhere. Until all parties sit down at the table to address that reality, the only people having an authentic discussion about the issue are the CRI members in Queens.