SUNY Bets Big on Agents

Despite ethical qualms, the State University of New York system plows ahead with international recruitment strategy.

July 26, 2011

NEW YORK CITY – Amid continuing questions about the ethics of using agents to recruit international students, the State University of New York System is moving ahead with an ambitious agency-based recruitment strategy, with the goal of increasing its total foreign student enrollment by more than 13,000 over five years. A portion of new tuition revenue would be used for funding internationalization initiatives – including 3,400 scholarships for study abroad and 125 grants for faculty.

“I presented this to the SUNY presidents and I said, ‘Look, I know it’s controversial. But if anyone else has another idea about how we can create a recurring pool of funds to create thousands of scholarships for students, and grants for faculty, I’m all ears,’ ” says Mitch Leventhal, the vice chancellor for global affairs for the 64-campus SUNY system. 

“Basically, it was silence in the room.” 

The debate over the use of agents in international student recruiting is typically framed as one of promise versus pitfall. Proponents argue that agents, paid via per-student commissions, can bring large numbers of foreign students to universities that otherwise couldn’t afford to invest heavily in international recruitment. They point out that Australian and British universities have engaged with agents for years and argue that if American higher education wants to compete, it should embrace this strategy, too.

Critics counter that the practice is prone to abuse and does not serve the best interests of prospective international students. Federal law prohibits incentive-based compensation in the recruitment of U.S. students – a policy that resulted from abuses in the for-profit college industry -- and, in May, the National Association for College Admission Counseling released a draft policy statement clarifying that its ban on incentive-based recruitment would apply at home and abroad.

As the statement asserts, “reducing the basis for compensation to the number of students enrolled in any circumstance introduces an incentive for recruiters to ignore the student interest in the transition to postsecondary education, and invites complications involving misrepresentation, conflict of interest, and fraud at the expense of the student.”

NACAC is not concerned about the use of agents per se, but about the commission-based payment model. “The one sliver of the deal that is of concern is why institutions feel that the commissioned model is so important, and why the expediency of the commission overrides the concern about the incentives that it creates for agents on the other end,” says David A. Hawkins, NACAC’s director of public policy and research.

Many colleges, however, have contracted with agents despite the ongoing ethical debate, arguing that the commission-based model allows them to recruit more widely and at a lower upfront cost. Out front in the debate is Leventhal, a founder of the American International Recruitment Council, which has developed a set of standards for certifying recruiting agencies; 42 have been certified so far. Leventhal has emerged as the most visible proponent of the value of commissioned agents in internationalizing U.S. higher education and is now testing the strategy on a large scale at SUNY.

The SUNY Strategy

It’s no secret that many colleges want to grow their international student enrollment in large part for financial reasons. Per Inside Higher Ed’s recent survey of chief financial officers, 51.1 percent of CFOs at doctoral institutions, 49.1 percent at master’s institutions and 40 percent at baccalaureate colleges described recruiting more international students as a very important strategy in increasing institutional revenues.

At SUNY, international students pay more than 2.5 times the tuition that New York residents pay ($13,380 versus $4,970). Leventhal is frank about the financial benefits that international students bring to the system, which in recent years has faced significant budget cuts and forecasts a drop-off in traditional-aged students ahead: “We’re looking at the potential yawning of capacity,” Leventhal said, as the baby boomlet graduates from college.

“This is a major component of the plan to keep all of our campuses running at a reasonably full level. In some of our communities the SUNY campus is the big employer. It is what is keeping that community alive and it’s the only source of higher education.”

Under the new internationalization strategy, the systemwide Office of Global Affairs will maintain contracts with a network of international agents, who will recruit for the various SUNY campuses that opt into the agent initiative. So far, 29 campuses have signed up to participate and SUNY central has signed contracts with 14 agencies (six more contracts have been awarded but are not yet signed).

Per the standard contract, all agents must be certified by AIRC. They receive no upfront compensation; instead, for each student they send SUNY’s way, they will be paid 10 percent of that student’s net first-year tuition. As is typical in agent models, payment is therefore contingent on successful admission and enrollment of a student.

Right now there are 18,164 international students across the 64 campuses of the system, making up 3.9 percent of total student enrollment. Through the agent network SUNY hopes to increase its number of international students to 31,500, or 6.8 percent of total enrollment. Below is a table summarizing the system’s projections. Although Leventhal stresses that individual campuses will continue their own recruitment strategies parallel to the system’s efforts, the projections cited below refer only to students to be recruited through the agent network.








Year 1 (2012-2013)



Year 2 (2013-2014)



Year 3 (2014-2015)



Year 4 (2015-2016)



Year 5 (2016-2017)



Total International Enrollment





















New Agency-Recruited Matriculating Students




















Source: State University of New York

The expectation is that the vast majority of students recruited through the agent network would be full fee-paying undergraduates. In year five, it’s estimated that the 6,000 newly matriculated students alone would bring an additional $90 million in tuition revenue. (The revenue estimates are rough, based on SUNY’s standard four-year college tuition rate of $13,380, with the assumption of a 3 percent annual increase. They do not take into account the lower rates charged by community colleges.)

In addition to the 10 percent agent commission, participating SUNY campuses agree to return 8 percent of first-year net tuition for students recruited through the agency network to the system, to be diverted to a “Global Reinvestment Fund” to pay for scholarships and grants for students and faculty, as well as administrative, marketing, and infrastructure-related costs associated with the agent strategy. In year five, SUNY hopes to generate about $7.2 million for the Global Reinvestment Fund, including $5.1 million for study abroad scholarships for U.S. students (3,400 of $1,500 each), $150,000 to host Scholars at Risk, and $312,500 for faculty international incubation grants (125 of $2,500 each).

“All university presidents talk a lot about expanding study abroad, expanding faculty research collaboration, but there are rarely resources to do this,” Leventhal says. “The major constraint on sending students to study abroad is cost. If you can provide a student with a small scholarship, $1,000, $1,500, I guarantee you the probability of that student studying abroad is much higher than if you cannot.” The proportion of SUNY students studying abroad is quite low: in 2009-10, only 4,544 students from 21 campuses studied abroad, out of an overall systemwide enrollment exceeding 450,000.

“Similarly with faculty, a lot of them want to initiate international activities but all they need is some money to get them over there and begin collaborating,” Leventhal says. “So how do you motivate faculty; how do you give them the resources to begin internationalizing the curriculum and create new programs?

“We want to create opportunities for the American kids. So a cool way to do it is to bring in international students -- that alone is positive because it internationalizes the classroom experience, the community and so on – but then with this new money, take a piece of it and direct that back to help the outbound.”

Only those SUNY campuses that opt into the agent network will be eligible to benefit from the new scholarships and grants. The list of 29 institutions that have signed up so far is below. Of the four comprehensive doctoral institutions, the Albany and Binghamton campuses have opted in, but not Buffalo and Stony Brook. The state-run Cornell colleges aren’t participating.

SUNY Campuses Participating in the Agent Network


Doctoral Institutions



University Colleges



Technical Colleges



Community Colleges









Alfred State









Buffalo State









College of Environmental Science and Forestry



























New Paltz



Farmingdale State









Old Westbury



Morrisville State



























North Country






































Source: State University of New York

“I’ve gotten some pushback because SUNY is a complicated place,” says Leventhal. “There are campuses which quite frankly don’t need to do this. Buffalo has plenty of international students, they have systems in place, they’re highly professionalized. This doesn’t bring them significant value; we complicate things for them. There are other campuses that maybe are not comfortable with it because of the ongoing NACAC debate. There are other campuses that don’t want to recruit more international students, for whatever reason. They don’t have the capacity to house them, for example.”

Asked if the NACAC statement stands to hamper SUNY’s plans, Leventhal responds that it won’t. “Look,” he says. “We have invested well into the six figures already over two years to get this thing going. Our ambition is to generate thousands of scholarships for students and grants for faculty. If we can’t do it this way, there is no other way that I’ve been able to come up with. We don’t want to sacrifice those benefits. And we believe it can be done ethically.”

Risk vs. Reward?

Outside experts, however, raise questions about the ethics of contracting with agents and, beyond that, the commercialization of international student recruiting.

“The central issue with the agent model is the incentive mechanism which promotes compromises to document standards and biased advice,” says Rahul Choudaha, the director of development and innovation at World Education Services, a nonprofit organization that studies foreign academic credentials, institutions and trends. “The incentive system is designed to facilitate admissions of international students to be easy and fast, not necessarily reliable and relevant. This ‘fast and easy’ process may also involve document frauds, because if the student does not get admitted there is no commission.

“No doubt the agent model will bring more international students to U.S. campuses, as in the U.K. and Australia. However, at stake is the overall reputation and brand strength of U.S. higher education, as many of the students coming through the agent route may not have educational intent and may also have questionable documentations.”

“It’s a shortcut, and it’s a shortcut through a swamp,” says Philip G. Altbach, the director of Boston College’s Center for International Higher Education. “I think this will eventually come back to bite SUNY, that they will get a reputation for wanting international students as cash cows. And it will rebound on the individual campuses, including ones who don’t use agents, who haven’t bought into what I would call a commercialization strategy.”

Altbach points out that SUNY Buffalo is recognized as a national leader in recruiting international students: among U.S. colleges, Buffalo ranks 12th in international enrollments, with 4,911 foreign students. Buffalo does not use agents, instead relying on its own staff’s expertise in recruiting. “Why can’t the other campuses look to Buffalo?” asks Altbach.

Asked why Buffalo opted against participating in the SUNY agent network , John J. Wood, the senior associate vice provost for international education, responds: “The simple answer is that we have a very established, well-developed and quite successful international enrollment management program of our own, which we’ve developed over the past 15 years or so. Our sense is that we do this very well on our own, while some of the other campuses in the system are just getting started with international recruitment. It’s understandable that they would want to take advantage of this new approach, but we’re happy to continue our own program.”

As to whether Buffalo’s decision not to work with agents is based on ethical opposition, Wood says, “I would just focus on the point I made, which is we’ve been successful enough not doing so.”

For institutions like SUNY’s College at Brockport, however, the situation is different. Brockport, located in a rural area outside Rochester, has only about 55 international students. And until this year, when it hired a full-time international recruiter, it had done very little to systematically recruit them, says Ralph Trecartin, the college’s executive director of international education. Brockport is now scaling up its own in-house recruitment initiatives at the same time it has opted into the system-wide agent network. “If we had been doing a lot of our own recruiting for years, we might have a different take on this, but basically the system came in to fill a void for something we needed to do and hadn’t been doing,” Trecartin says.

“It’s a very exciting time. I think that properly done, this is the way to do it.”


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