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A recent opinion by Philip Altbach and Liz Reisberg uses such a broad brush that it paints a highly inaccurate picture of how educational agencies partner with institutions to recruit international students. The authors mischaracterize the people and organizations that work hard daily to provide quality educational opportunities to international students seeking to pursue their education in the United States.

For the past year, I have served as the executive director of the American International Recruitment Council, AIRC, founded in 2008 as a nonprofit membership association, and recognized by the U.S. Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission as the Standards Development Organization—SDO—for the field of international enrollment management. My experience working for AIRC tells a much different story about the value, character and effectiveness of educational agencies and their institutional partners.

Quality Assurance

In its SDO role, AIRC develops and promulgates standards and certifies educational agencies, providing quality assurance for the international student recruitment field. AIRC-certified agencies complete a rigorous process that is based on the U.S. higher education accreditation model. AIRC monitors agencies, and any public complaints about them are reviewed for potential investigation and, if indicated, agencies are put on probation or may lose their certification. This system of quality control and accountability helps to ensure that educational agencies meet AIRC’s standards. Institutions concerned about ethical practices should be assured that AIRC-certified agencies demonstrate their ongoing commitment to high quality standards and to serving the best interests of students and institutional partners.

The Nature of Quality Partnerships

What do partnerships based on standards involve? Quality partnerships between institutions and agencies are not merely transactional; they involve the investment of time to become familiar with each other and build trust. These entities need to build a working relationship supported by contractual agreement so that each party understands their obligations to the other. Agencies need to understand the institution, and the institution needs to invest in training the agency to represent it. Institutional staff must communicate closely and continually with their agency partners and monitor that they are representing the institution in good faith and in an ethical manner.

A Focus on Students

I have yet to meet a member of AIRC who does not share the core belief of putting students first. AIRC completed a strategic planning process earlier this year and resulted in a new mission statement that articulates this shared value: “AIRC champions the interests of international students, educational institutions, and educational agencies through the development of professional standards and partnerships that advance effective and strategic practices in international enrollment management.” Further, the vision of the association emphasizes the prime importance of a quality experience for all students: “A vision for standards-based recruitment and enrollment for every international student.” The focus on the student permeates the AIRC professional community of institutions and educational agencies. These colleagues not only know their students, but they also care about them.

Partners on the Ground

During the highest point of the pandemic, educational agencies worked tirelessly to keep international recruitment efforts active for institutions. They kept in close touch with students and their families, helped them to assess and enroll in online coursework opportunities, advised them on travel policies and restrictions, and provided broad support during this challenging period. Institutions with which I have spoken applaud the ways in which their agency partners did everything they could to represent the institutions and support the students during the pandemic. In a world of educational opportunity, it is simply not possible for most institutions to have a physical presence in countries around the globe. By partnering with agencies, institutions can provide more accurate information to students, advise them more effectively and orient them to the campus and academic programs.

Increase in Agency-Institution Partnerships

Earlier this year a survey conducted by AIRC and the National Association for College Admission Counseling revealed that almost half (49 percent) of the responding institutions currently partner with educational agencies to recruit undergraduate international students, indicating overall growth in the percentage of institutions that partner with agencies from a survey a few years earlier. This is due to a wider acceptance on the part of institutions of the effectiveness and benefits of partnering with agencies.

A Key Part of a National Strategy

In July of this year, the U.S. Departments of State and Education issued a joint Statement of Principles in Support of International Education that was also endorsed by the U.S. Department of Commerce. The statement calls for a “coordinated national approach to international education, including study in the United States by international students.” Educational agencies have a critical role to play in this plan. Quality agencies provide U.S. colleges, universities and secondary institutions with representation in expanded regions of the world, helping institutions to better diversify their campuses and do a more in-depth job of identifying students who are the right fit for the institutions.

Congress and higher education associations agree strongly. The rapid introduction of two technical correction bills in the U.S. House of Representatives, one by U.S. Representative Mike Bost (an Illinois Republican) and another by U.S. Representative David Trone (a Maryland Democrat), seek to amend the THRIVE Act, and are evidence of how strongly Congress supports the practice of institutions partnering with agencies, as allowed under the existing law articulated in the Higher Education Act. These amendments are what many higher education associations have been calling for, because they too recognize the value and effectiveness of high-quality, standards-based partnerships between institutions and agencies.


At a time when the United States seeks to rebuild international student enrollment and reassert its position as the leading destination for a high-quality education, we should not shrink from the responsibility of doing all that we can to ensure that students are provided with high-quality experiences throughout the educational life cycle, including during recruitment and enrollment. Rather than limit the tools that institutions have available to them to attract international students who are excellent matches for them, we need instead to bolster their efforts by setting and enforcing standards, providing training and education, and holding the field accountable.

There are no guarantees that all international students will have a high-quality recruitment experience. But we have a better chance of achieving that vision not by limiting the strategies and tools that institutions use, but instead by making certain that the tools are aligned to help students.

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