The Trojans have staked out territory all over the world.
The University of Southern California has offices in China, Hong Kong, Japan, Mexico, South Korea, and Taiwan, home bases for international activities ranging from recruiting to alumni relations. Next up, USC is considering opening offices in Brazil and India. "For those institutions that are serious about developing a global presence, it’s a model that from my own view makes perfect sense," said Ken McGillivray, USC’s vice provost for global initiatives. “It does allow for a level of connectivity on a daily basis, in order to seize on opportunities that if you weren’t there would be either very difficult to pursue -- or the worst-case scenario is that you’d just never know about them.”
USC isn’t the only institution with offices overseas: Ohio State University, for instance, recently opened its first “Global Gateway” office in Shanghai, and has plans to expand into India and Brazil and, subsequently, beyond. But not every college can afford an office of its own in Bangalore and Beijing, Mexico City and Mumbai. Girish Ballolla, CEO of the Minnesota-based for-profit company Gen Next Education, thinks he has a solution for the other institutions: office sharing, combined with outsourcing.
"In my opinion, very few universities in the U.S. have the resources or the wherewithal to establish successful overseas offices," Ballolla said. "So the solution is to offer universities a similar opportunity to establish a physical presence and not have to burden themselves with the challenge or cost of establishing such an office."
Ballolla’s concept is to create an International Knowledge Center, a shared facility that can serve as a base from which many institutions can advance their efforts in a given region -- to recruit students, develop study abroad programs, arrange for international internships, cultivate relationships with alumni, and form strategic collaborations with foreign higher education institutions. "You would consider us to be a third-party provider of such a center," said Ballolla. While representatives from member colleges could flow in and out of the Knowledge Center, it would be staffed on a day-to-day basis by Gen Next employees. They would provide a host of services – including marketing at regional high schools -- to help coordinate the colleges’ international activities on the ground.
"I like to say we’re the last-mile connection," said Ballolla. "You talk to a lot of U.S. faculty or administrators and they’ll say, 'Oh, we went to India and we signed an MOU 18 months ago, and nothing’s happened. No one's really pushing the envelope on the other end.' If you’re not really connected in that last mile, all your efforts are for naught."
Gen Next is in the process of opening its first International Knowledge Center, in Bangalore; Ballolla hopes it will open in March. His goal is for it to be the first of many such centers, representing no more than 25 institutions each. Colleges can become "strategic partners" of a center for $30,000 a year, which means they’ll have access to Gen Next services in coordinating a wide variety of international activities. Alternatively, colleges can choose to contract with Gen Next for recruiting services only, for $20,000 a year.
Ballolla said that Gen Next staff will travel to local high schools to promote member colleges and provide counseling, back in the center, throughout the application and admission process. These services would be provided to students free of cost, and Gen Next would not receive commissions from the universities it represents (rather, it would derive its revenue from the membership fees). The growth of commission-based international student recruitment has been controversial,  and Ballolla said his model is deliberately designed as an alternative.
"I really don’t believe in the concept of recruiting students on commission, because of the integrity issues," he said. "How do you manage people on the front lines trying to recruit students when they know they could probably make more money recruiting for XYZ University instead of ABC University? What’s to stop them from selling a bill of goods that some colleges can’t really deliver on?"
Many smaller institutions that use commission-based recruiting argue that they’re too small to set up full-time offices. While they can send their own representatives to recruiting fairs, they rely on outside agents to maintain a more permanent presence on the ground. It’s these institutions – and those that have resisted using agents altogether, and are looking for alternatives -- that Ballolla hopes to tap into.
The University of Iowa is the first institution to commit to joining the center. Downing A. Thomas, associate provost and dean of international programs, said that officials plan to sign a contract with Gen Next after the lawyers finish a final review of it. "We’re seeing this office as a way to channel some of our activities and serve as a resource and a hub for connections," he said, in areas ranging from tech transfer to gifted and talented education (the university’s center for gifted education, for instance, is looking to attract Indian high school students for a summer program back in Iowa). More generally, Thomas said that Iowa is looking to diversify its undergraduate international population, which is predominantly Chinese. There are 852 Chinese undergraduates this year, compared to 25 from India.
"We do not hire agents to recruit students abroad," Thomas said. "We usually send teams to fairs and to local high schools. We were attracted to Girish’s proposal because he very, very explicitly said that they were not planning to charge Indian students or their parents for any services. We will team up our folks here in Iowa City with his people in Bangalore so that we can make sure that we’re really just providing information to students."
Millikin University, in Illinois, is also considering membership in the International Knowledge Center in Bangalore, although the university hasn’t made its final decision yet.
"Our institution does not have a national brand image," said Richard Dunsworth, the vice president of enrollment. "We are not a name-brand school that if you go to China, if you go to India, somebody’s going to say, yep, Millikin University, I know what that school is. But we’re a fantastic institution for many students."
Millikin, unlike Iowa, does work with agents. But, said Dunsworth, there’s a sense that the university needs to establish a physical presence abroad in order to make serious inroads in international student recruiting. "There’s a growing belief on our campus that, without a physical presence that starts to build some name recognition of our institution, that we’re going to get lost in the noise."