Last week the Overseas Association for College Admission Counseling (OACAC), an affiliate of the National Association of College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) held its annual meeting in Denver. It is not surprising that attendees were caught up in the ongoing debate over the use of agents. Confusion reigns.
The agent debate seems to focus on whether it is appropriate to pay agents a commission if they refer appropriate candidates to a university willing to pay them a commission. According to a recent article in Times Higher Education, British universities paid out nearly USD 90 million in commissions to agents last year. That’s a lot of money! This information is not available for the US so one can only speculate about what US universities have paid out in commission.
The underlying question that seems directly tied to this is — Why do universities want foreign students? If institutions are willing to pay a commission for them, then it feels a lot like a business transaction with the expectation of a good ROI (return on investment) — pay a commission and expect an ROI in the form of full tuition and fees.
Money going to pay commissions would surely be better spent on scholarships for international students, for improved services to international students, for programs that integrate international and host country students to insure a rich cultural exchange. From my many years of experience in admissions, the best marketing is word of mouth. In other words, insure opportunities and experiences on campus make for happy students. Happy students make for loyal alumni who provide invaluable endorsements and referrals. And alumni don’t charge a commission.
When universities take the easy route to recruitment and “purchase” international students by paying agents to deliver warm bodies, it’s hard to believe that they will do the hard work necessary to host and support students from diverse cultures responsibly. More likely a senior administrator sees the opportunity of working with agents as an easy way to increase revenue without an additional budget line for infrastructure or personnel. It’s tempting to believe that if a university is looking for shortcuts in recruiting, that they are less likely to make the institutional commitment necessary to insure a successful experience on campus; this means developing the experience and knowledge to understand the unique needs of this diverse group and commit the necessary resources for the services that international students require.
In fact when an institution is recruiting through third parties, an invaluable bridge to the student’s home country is lost. When universities do their own recruiting, their own personnel learn critical information about other cultures, values, education systems, challenges facing students returning home after graduation, etc., information that can filter back to campus and contribute to the creation a truly international community and a better student experience. We know from a growing body of data that international students do not integrate easily, that their friends tend to be other international students more often than host-country peers. They are often isolated on campus. So, from where I sit, the use of agents contributes nothing to institutional capacity to develop an internationally rich environment, rather it encourages a rather crass process — buy them, collect their fees, leave them to their own devices.
While I’m not saying that institutions that work with agents always neglect international students on campus, assigning recruitment to third parties does deprive institutions of an opportunity for important organizational learning.
The current debate over working with agents focuses on whether it is possible to “accredit” ethical agents. But it is important to remember that agents are only half the story. We need to look at the institutions that use their services. Are these institutions recruiting international students solely for the revenue they provide? Or to boast about the number of countries represented on campus? To make sure that international recruitment is ethical and responsible, we need to do more than certify the activities of agents, we must examine whether institutions who use their services are truly prepared to receive overseas students and how these students are treated when they arrive on campus. This is critical not only to avoid the scandals that have been reported in the press but to protect international students from the neglect that they often experience after they’ve paid tuition.