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Call me an idealist— I don’t mind.  I continue to watch the debate over the use of commissioned agents for international student recruitment and my stomach turns over.  I was in the “business of student recruitment” for more than 25 years.  I have represented high profile institutions as well as colleges that are unknown beyond their immediate neighborhood.  I do not come to this debate theoretically.  Nor am I naïve about the challenges that institutions face when they wish to bring international students to their campus.  What I fear is that the rationale for using agents is simply a justification for a recruitment shortcut that will hurt international students in the long run.

The defense for using and “accrediting” agents seems to focus on the following issues: universities want international students and they just don’t have the knowledge or resources or time to do the recruitment themselves; Chinese parents are going to pay for services anyway so why not make sure they work with ethical (whatever that means) agents; students are overwhelmed by the information on the Internet and they need help; agents are here to stay so let’s find a way to insure the quality of the services provided.

The issues listed above are not the basis for the kind of international student mobility that enriches higher education.  I know that agents are not a new phenomenon.  They were certainly operating when I began working in international admissions.  Actually, my memory is long enough to remember when NAFSA was brave enough to discourage working with agents in their standards of professional conduct.  We have witnessed the lobby that assaulted NACAC when they tried this.  NAFSA no longer even approaches the topic!

I have so many objections that it is hard to know where to begin.  One of the serious risks of “outsourcing” recruitment is that this distances the university from the student and the student’s culture.  I insist that it is impossible to insure the communication of necessary information that must be exchanged between a university and a prospective student when it goes through a third-party who is not an employee of the university and who has not spent much (if any) time on the university campus.  If anyone doubts this, just recall the game of “Telephone” that many of us played as children (One person whispers a message in the ear of another who then passes the message on, whispering in the ear of another and so on until the message has passed around a seated circle resulting in a message that is unintelligible.).  Distortion and miscommunication happens (even) unintentionally. 

Furthermore, when recruitment is done through intermediaries, crucial information about the student’s background, national educational system and academic preparation, potential acculturation challenges, etc. are unlikely to make it back to the recruiting institution in a way that the institution will develop appropriate services and support.  In fact, I worry that when institutions outsource recruitment because of the financial efficiencies it provides, whether they will invest in the necessary campus infrastructure that is required for hosting international students responsibly.  

I realize that we cannot do much to change the conviction of some Chinese parents who are convinced that the best way for their only child to study at a top university abroad is to pay someone to handle the admission.  But if universities refused to work with intermediaries, this would have considerable impact.  This feels a bit too much like the arms race where we participate because everyone else does and we just can’t stop the momentum.

There is no question that the information on the Internet is overwhelming.  I do sympathize with any student who is trying to make sense of the opportunities and admissions processes outside their home country.  But the selection of a university and degree program is important enough to justify the effort required to sort through the available information.  We (Philip Altbach and I) have pointed to sources of information and guidance in a recent article published in International Higher Education and subsequently reprinted in University World News.  Encouraging students to take shortcuts by turning the choice over to someone paid by a university is not the best way to help them sort through information. 

It seems that those who passionately defend the American International Recruitment Council's (AIRC) certification process as the panacea that will protect universities from unscrupulous agents forget about protecting students.  My primary concern is for the student.  I wonder whether AIRC can guarantee that agents disclose that they represent specific universities that may or may not be the best option for a student.  That they may not have broad knowledge about US higher education and are only in a position to provide good information for the institutions in the agent’s portfolio.  Do prospective students understand the affect on counseling when agents are earning commissions for their enrollment?  Can AIRC guarantee that one of the agents (or agencies) that they have accredited will recommend a university that does not pay a commission if it is the best option for a prospective student? 

I think the defense of agents by universities and students all comes down to the search for easy solutions to a process and objectives that are anything but easy to achieve.  Isn’t one of the goals of higher education to guide individuals through the difficulties of sorting through existing information, analyzing and evaluating it, and making the best decision possible based on available knowledge.  Shouldn’t this begin with the admissions process?