Agents, Diversity, Service Learning

At gathering of international educators, commission-based recruiting remains a hot topic; other areas of discussion include gay international students and links between extracurricular and curricular.
June 6, 2011

VANCOUVER, B.C. -- The annual NAFSA: Association of International Educators conference, which concluded Friday, featured a variety of panels on issues pertaining to international student recruitment and admissions, international student advising, and study abroad. Throughout the weeklong conference, the longstanding debate about the ethics of using agents in international recruiting remained in the spotlight, and on Friday panels focused on such subjects as strategies for better supporting gay international students and the growth and academic content of service learning abroad.

The Role of Agents

The ethical debate about the use of agents paid on commission in overseas recruiting was once again a hot item of discussion. Many defenders of the model reacted vehemently to a recent draft policy released by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) clarifying that the organization’s ban on its members engaging in incentive-based recruiting would apply at home and abroad.

According to NACAC’s recent statement on the issue, “NACAC recognizes that international recruitment is an important source of students and revenue for colleges and universities and that many institutions may need to utilize outside agencies or agents to recruit internationally. NACAC is not opposed to the use of agents or agencies to recruit international students. We believe, however, that the use of agents who are compensated in the form of bonus, commission or other incentive payment on the basis of the number of students recruited or enrolled creates an environment in which misrepresentation and conflicts of interests are unavoidable. In the context of the larger effort to recruit students from abroad to study in the U.S., we believe that it is in the interest of institutions of higher education, as well as the public diplomacy of the U.S. itself, to maintain high standards for the recruitment of students.”

NACAC here is advocating for parity in treatment of international and domestic students, as U.S. law already bars commission-based recruitment in the case of the former. However, it is standard for colleges in Australia, the United Kingdom and other countries that compete with the United States for international students to engage agents on commission, and the practice has grown rapidly in recent years among American institutions.

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Given this growth, there were few public defenders of the NACAC statement at NAFSA, where the discussion had mostly moved beyond the question of whether to use agents to the secondary question of how to do so.

The most visible advocate for the use of agents is the American International Recruitment Council (AIRC), which, since its founding in 2008, has created standards for certifying agents. Proponents argue that international students increasingly turn to educational agents whether colleges directly engage with them or not. “Agents are a fact and a reality and they’re not going to go away,” said Stephen P. Foster, the associate vice president for international affairs at Wright State University and president of AIRC’s board. “We think that the best way to deal with that piece of reality is to put into place a broad, long-term, systematic approach to professionalizing the industry.”

But why not pay agents based on a flat fee model, rather than per student who enrolls? Norman J. Peterson, vice provost for international education at Montana State University, said that a flat-fee model would force institutions like his to restrict their recruiting efforts to only a few parts of the world. An institution might contract with an agent on a flat fee model in India or China, say, but perhaps not for the possibility of a single student or two from Nepal.

"The commission-based model works very well because it’s a performance-based model," said Pushpinder Bhatia, managing director of PAC Asia Services, an agency with 13 offices in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka. With a commission-based model, the agent is paid by the university only upon successful admission and enrollment of a student. With a flat fee-based model, Bhatia said, the question would come up of how much a university would pay and how many students they would expect in return (implicitly or explicitly) for that flat fee.

"I think that there is this false idea that you can take financial incentives out of the picture," said Peterson, of Montana State, "and it’s just not true." (Inside Higher Ed bloggers have also been debating the agent issue. See these recent posts at The World View and The University of Venus.)

Supporting Gay International Students

At a Friday morning session, Tina Hatch, an adviser in the International Student Services office at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, presented findings from a survey of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender international students at her institution. Many of these students are coming out while in the United States: while only 8.33 percent of respondents described themselves as openly gay around most people when they first entered the country, 29.17 percent described themselves as such at the time they took the survey.

These students, said Hatch, are dealing with typical cultural adjustment issues as well as issues specific to their LGBT identities – concerns about how they would be perceived or accepted in their home countries and questions about whether to come out, and when and where and with whom they can be out here in the United States. They also have questions about immigration issues for themselves and their partners. The majority (70 percent) believed that life as a LGBT person would be easier for them in the U.S. than at home. They cited as top reasons for this the different culture and beliefs of the U.S. (67 percent) and the fact that they are away from family and friends (53 percent).

Only 25 students from Madison responded to the survey, but Hatch said she felt comfortable with that number given that a previous study on this topic, conducted by Nadine Kato in the late 90s, was distributed to 170 institutions and received 59 student responses. Hatch said her findings mirrored Kato’s with one significant exception: Kato found that international LGBT students felt most comfortable with American gay students, while in Hatch’s survey only two international students reported feeling a great deal of connection with the larger LGBT community on campus. Half felt slight or no belonging to this group.

Of the students who responded to Hatch’s survey, 16 were male, and 9 female. They came from Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Canada, and Central and South America. Among Hatch’s findings:

  • The majority of students were out to friends in their home country or their American friends, while only seven of 25 were out to their parents, and eight of 25 to other family members.
  • Students expressed the greatest sense of belonging in their academic department or major, followed by among international students in general, followed by among people from their home country.
  • One in four students said they felt more comfortable being open about their sexual identity with American friends, while only one in three felt “about as comfortable” being out with friends from their home country as with Americans. More than one in five students did not feel comfortable being out with any group at all.
  • Students expressed fears of being discriminated against in the visa process, and frustration with current U.S. immigration laws, which do not grant equal rights to same-sex as to heterosexual partners. Students wrote comments such as, “I have been in a relationship with my American boyfriend for over three years and decided to get [a] legal marriage. If U.S. admit [sic] gay marriage, I could have got a green card, but since it doesn’t, we decide to move to Canada.” Another student wrote: “I have fears. I have an American partner. We live together and we have planned our lives together. Many times I have worried about my immigration situation. It’s so easy for an [sic] heterosexual international student to legalize his/her immigration status by marrying the person she/he loves. I can’t do that. I fully depend on finding a job in order to stay in the United States.”
  • Students also expressed concerns about returning home. As one wrote, “I’m afraid that I will go right back into the closet. There really isn’t any reasons [sic] I should need to, but it’s probably the fear of rejection from my family, or even just a general reflex to hide it, since I’ve grown up doing that.”

Hatch and her co-panelists presented ideas for better supporting LGBT international students, such as posting resources for LGBT students on the international student Web site, incorporating LGBT content in international student orientations and programming, and supporting students in applying for extensions of B2 (tourist) visas for their same-sex partners. “And, in terms of your office space, do you display anything that would suggest it’s a safe environment and communicates support, even if the student is not out?” Hatch asked. She noted that since administering the survey and increasing the visibility of her office’s support for LGBT students, five have come to her specifically to talk about coming out.

The Growth of Service Learning Abroad

A final session on Friday afternoon focused on the “learning” aspect of service learning abroad. “Service learning has evolved from a peripheral, extracurricular activity in higher education into an academically credited program that is supported by universities to the extent that any number of them now have mission statements that include service learning,” said Joan Elias Gore, the senior academic development director for the Foundation for International Education, a nonprofit study abroad provider. “And any number of universities now provide staff who are charged with developing and/or administering academically credited service learning projects.”

“It raises some very interesting questions about what happens when something that has been perceived as extracurricular, as a nice thing to do, what happens when that becomes central to the academic mission?” Gore asked.

Maj Fischer, the director of international internships at Wisconsin at Madison, suggested that service learning has grown in part because of the work of education researchers like George D. Kuh, who has identified service learning and study abroad as “high-impact educational practices” that improve student retention and engagement.

Julie Andreshak-Behrman, acting chief academic officer for FIE, described the need to negotiate tensions between the various stakeholders in service learning, including the student, the home university, and the service learning placement site or community partner. Students might have their own goals, but she points out a need for those goals to be “reasonably general” so that students can help fulfill the needs of the organization that they are working with. She also cited practical challenges regarding duration – in short ensuring that students are remaining in a placement site long enough and/or intensively enough to be of help, particularly given any time or resources devoted to their training. (“Who’s being served?” she asked.)

In regard to assuring faculty of service learning’s genuine academic value, Andreshak-Behrman said what’s key is that the academic component include elements that go beyond personal reflection (though the reflection piece is also extremely important, she said). FIE, for example, requires that its service learning students in London enroll in a course on social welfare issues in the United Kingdom, so that they have a better context for understanding the evolution of the philanthropic, nongovernmental sector and their own work within it.


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