The debate about agents sure has occupied a lot of space in the professional press of late! Mitch Leventhal, Vice Chancellor for Global Affair for the State University of New York, continues to insist that his organization, AIRC, can certify virtue but the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) isn’t buying it. Last week NACAC released a draft policy statement  that bans commissions for the recruitment of students in the US and abroad.
The push back against Mr. Leventhal seems to be growing. This week in The Edge Mel Broitman added his doubts  to claims that certification will insure ethical practice by agents noting, “As far as the American International Recruitment Council regulations, I surfed over to their list of accredited agencies and I spot several agencies I know of first hand as a long way from being honest brokers. One has to wonder how hard was it to get "accreditation" status?”
And in case anyone had any doubts about just how sleazy third party recruitment can get, Daniel Golden’s article in Bloomberg News  should send shivers down the spine of all university administrators. In his article Golden describes the plight of Chinese students who believed that they had been accepted to the University of Connecticut-Storrs but found themselves enrolled at the commuter-oriented University of Connecticut-Torrington paying a premium for housing owned by the person who contracted the agents that recruited them.
Defenders of agents and recruiters keep repeating that agents should be included as a central part of an American “export strategy” for higher education. They emphasize that the “train has left the station” since many US and foreign universities currently use agents to boost their international enrollments. Well, the train may have left the station, but it is heading directly for a cliff. With students aboard.
Our view is that agents and recruiters are running amok around the world and, as Mr. Broitman reminds us, accreditation does not guarantee ethical practice despite the best intentions of the AIRC. This is evidenced by the fact that some of the participants in questionable practices cited by Golden are AIRC accredited. Mr. Leventhal has accused us of naïvité but perhaps he suffers from the same frailty.
Sleazy practices such as those that Golden points out are sullying the reputation of American higher education as well as of the colleges and universities that use agents as an “easy” way to recruit international students. Even worse, the University of Connecticut seems entirely innocent in the scandals that Golden describes but their reputation may still be tarred by those agents who pretend to have an affiliation with the Connecticut system.
In a recent editorial in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Mitch Leventhal argues that the United States needs an aggressive strategy for leveraging higher education as an “export industry”. Higher education, he argues, is a commercial product to be bought and sold. He disparages the US Department of State and EducationUSA explicitly for being insufficiently focused on education as a product. His criticism is not surprising given that EducationUSA has been critical of agents and refuses to work with them. Its mandate is to provide objective information about American higher education to prospective students. This apparently is not sufficient for the enterprising people at SUNY, the AIRC, or others who see education as mainly a commodity.
It might be appropriate to point out that the US government is divided about the role of international higher education. While the US Department of State respects the conventions that define the legitimacy of higher education institutions, the US Department of Commerce does not. Not surprisingly, the Dept. of Commerce has jumped onto the commodity bandwagon. They sponsor education fairs throughout the world to encourage international enrollment at United States institutions but with no qualms about including unaccredited and for-profit US institutions and, as a result, facilitating access to the worst of American higher education.
Without any question, there will be a continuing parade of scandals, shoddy practices, and outright fraud arising from the activities of agents. Eventually, the higher education will come to realize that the enormous costs to the reputation of American higher education, the violation of trust, and the risks of giving in to the practice motivated by the desire for additional revenue. Only then will the train be slowed down and perhaps, finally stop. For the moment, the agent train is barreling down the track headed for a wreck.