“Agent Provocateur” – The Growing Pains of Agency-Based International Student Recruitment in the U.S.


At a Hunan restaurant in Flushing, Queens, members of the newly formed Chinese Returnees International (CRI) suck on spicy spare ribs and quaff green tea. They’ve come for camaraderie and conversation–but they also have loftier goals.

“Our primary concern is to make an easier road for overseas Chinese students who want to go back to China, but we also want to make it easier for those in China who wish to study in the U.S.,” says CRI member Sue Wang, a graduate of the Michigan State University. “We share our experiences with Chinese students who want to study here. We encourage them to try American universities and talk about all the ways they can get here.”

Last year, the number of international students attending American institutions hit an all-time high. International students contribute $18 billion to the U.S. economy; their full-fee tuition subsidizes many American students’ educations. Culturally, they internationalize campuses and increase diversity–laudable goals for colleges and universities aiming to prepare students for a globalized world. But as American institutions face an increasingly competitive global education market and an aging domestic population, discussion regarding international student recruitment is rarely as civilized as the one over dinner in Queens.

Excerpted from Agent Provocateur, written by Megan Shank for The Huffington Post

One colleague, Judy Irwin, former director of international programs and services for the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) and founder/executive vice president, Global and College Alliances, of the Center for Global Advancement of Community Colleges (CGACC), was quoted as saying:  “You can’t have two faces on this.  What individual colleges do is their own business, but the associations have to be careful about playing sides.”

 One reason to exercise caution is that some of these nonprofit organizations, including the Institute of International Education (IIE), have close ties (e.g., $), to the U.S. State Department.  In other words, don’t rock the boat, don’t make waves and, in some cases, don’t bite the hand that feeds you.  Keep the sponsor happyat all costs

The article mentions that the U.S. Department of State “has traditionally framed education as a diplomatic tool rather than as a commodity.”  Correct me if I’m wrong, but I was under the impression that the U.S. system of education – primary, secondary and postsecondary – is decentralized.  Since when does the federal government determine the role or purpose of higher education inside or outside the borders of the U.S.?  

Morever, I think another USG department, Commerce, would beg to differ.  It takes great pride and expends considerable effort to promote U.S. higher education as a leading service sector export.  For example, Foreign Commercial Service (FCS) offices in Vietnam and around the world aggressively market a fee-based service that matches U.S. higher education institutions with local agents. 

Another colleague, Peggy Blumenthal, executive vice president of IIE, noted that “While standards for foreign agents are better than no standards, students are still best served by knowing all the possibilities rather than being sold on a school.  Agents thrive in cultures that believe middlemen are a necessary part of life, but they aren’t necessary.”  Really?  Says who?  In which cultural context?  Who’s going to ensure that young people and their parents know “all the possibilities” and receive quality soup to nuts service? 

The reality, anathema to those who take a black/white view of a rather complex and strategically important issue, is that the overwhelming majority of students and parents in Asia and elsewhere turn – not to EducationUSA advising centers – but to education consultancies, or agents, for information and assistance.  The former are charged with the task of representing all of U.S. higher education not individual schools.  As such, the service they provide is valuable but very basic; the amount of time advisers are able to spend with any one student or parent is necessarily limited.  It is therefore in the interests of all concerned to take steps to professionalize this industry in Vietnam and around the world. 

As many have pointed out, including one of the readers of this piece, there are countless examples of Americans, including those working in higher education, using “middlemen” and paying commissions:  executive search firms to recruit senior officials, buying and selling real estate, paying investment managers a fee based on the performance of the university endowments they manage, etc. 

Here’s a novel idea:  If you agree with the compelling logic of the arguments put forth by the American International Recruitment Council (AIRC), its members and other proponents of agency-based international student recruitment, why not speak truth to power?  Based on the number of schools that have joined the AIRC and the amount of space devoted to this issue in the print and electronic media, it’s clear that this movement is gaining momentum among U.S. colleges and universities.  At some point the balance will tip; pressure, pragmatism, and another cabinet level department (Commerce) will prevail and triumph over what is essentially a faux moral crusade. 

Thank you for reading what I believe is my longest post to date and thanks, Ken, for the heads-up.

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