Policy Guidance for EducationUSA Centers on Commercial Recruitment Agents

This policy guidance (PDF) from the U.S. State Department’s states that all (EducationUSA) centers “must adhere to the following ethical standards as a condition of their centers’ voluntary association with, and continued support from, ECA (Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs).  We understand that many advisers have been approached by commercial recruiters who have requested their assistance and support. We believe it is important to establish a uniform, worldwide policy to ensure that agents receive a consistent message from all EducationUSA centers.”

ECA’s Office of Academic Programs does not permit advising centers that receive support from ECA to become involved with commercial recruitment agents for the following reasons in bold.  I present – in italics – another perspective, additional information and/or a counterpoint. 

A. Commercial recruitment agents represent only those universities that pay them a fee, and commercial agents recruit exclusively for those universities. These commercial agents do not represent the breadth of the U.S. higher education system, nor can they represent U.S. universities equitably.

Not necessarily true.  Some commercial agents charge differential fees – a lower fee for clients who are admitted to and attend a partner school and a higher rate for those who attend non-partner schools.  “Double-dipping” (taking both a commission and a high fee) is not considered ethical.  Other companies only charge their clients (students/parent) for the service and take no commission. 

B. Commercial recruitment agents restrict the options available to foreign students in the U.S., a restriction that may lead students to choose a college or university that will not meet their needs. As a result, these students may have a less than satisfactory experience in the U.S., with lifelong  ramifications for their educational and professional activities and views of the United States.

Commercial agents that engage in ethical business practices will strive to find the best possible match between a client’s qualifications, goals, preferences, ability to pay and an appropriate short list of schools.  Anyone could have a “less than satisfactory experience” studying in the U.S.  I’m not sure how that would affect their “views of the United States.”  My hope is that wherever they study, they learn as much as they can about all facets of the host country’s society and culture:  the good, the bad, etc.

C. Commercial recruitment agents understandably direct their services to students with the ability to pay. EducationUSA center association with commercial agents would undermine our public diplomacy message of outreach to well-qualified students from throughout society, including underserved sectors.

U.S. higher education is one of the most expensive in the world.  Therefore, the overwhelming majority of international students who study in the U.S. are individuals “of means,” sons and daughters of their respective countries’ elites, including many who receive merit-based scholarships.  While there are some inspirational “rags-to-riches” stories of extremely bright, highly motivated and hard-working poor students who are able to reap the benefits of a U.S. higher education, the reality is that most “well-qualified” students are well-qualified because they have had the advantages of tutoring, extra classes, etc., all of which cost money.  To claim otherwise is disingenuous at best.  Many of those from “underserved sectors” need the type of remedial training that programs such as the Ford Foundation International Fellowship Program and similar programs offer.  Well-known U.S. government scholarship programs such as Fulbright and Vietnam Education Foundation (VEF) do not target “underserved sectors.”  Compared to its friendly competitors, Australia and the UK, the U.S. has relatively few scholarships available for Vietnamese and other international students.  Last year, for example, there were 39 VEF Fellows and 28 student Fulbrighters.   

D. Since EducationUSA centers benefit from U.S. taxpayer funds, they should avoid activities that may favor, or create perceptions of favoring, one U.S. institution over another. We can offer specific services either free or for a reasonable fee, but these services must lead to access to the full range of accredited institutions.  Partnering with commercial agents would limit us to representing only those institutions with which the agents have a commercial arrangement.

The “specific services” that EducationUSA centers are permitted to offer “for a reasonable fee” could be misconstrued as an endorsement of those institutions benefiting from those specific services.  This includes “affiliate programs” that some EducationUSA centers offer to U.S. schools in exchange for a fee.  (The Malaysian-American Commission on Educational Exchange Friends of MACEE affiliate program comes to mind.)   While I don’t see a need for EducationUSA centers to partner with commercial agents,  I do believe that they could play a positive role – as their Australian and British counterparts have – in helping to professionalize this nascent industry in Vietnam and other countries.   

E.  By adhering strictly to the ethical standards of providing information that is unbiased, objective, and comprehensive, EducationUSA centers equip foreign students to find the U.S. institutions that are right for them while enabling the full range of U.S. institutions to enroll qualified foreign students. Our goal is to invest in long-term relationships with students and institutional partners.

The service that EducationUSA centers provide is valuable but very basic; the amount of time advisers are able to spend with any one student or parent is necessarily limited.  (In Vietnam there are a total of three advisers – one in the Embassy in Hanoi and two in the Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City.)  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 Vietnam and elsewhere turn – not to EducationUSA advising centers – but to education consultancies, or agents, for information and assistance. 

Disclosure:  I served as country director of the Institute of International Education in Vietnam from 2005-09.  During that time, IIE-VN administered EducationUSA advising centers on behalf of ECA, US State Department.  MAA

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