Of Dogs, Fleas, & the Occasionally Dirty Business of International Student Recruitment

A Deal with the Devil aka Partners in Unethical Behavior?

quote-he-that-lieth-down-with-dogs-shall-rise-up-with-fleas-benjamin-franklin-35-31-10Discussions about the use of commission-based recruitment and international student recruitment in general are often couched in black and white terms.  The former refers to the unethical business practices of many education agents whose overriding goal is money, and lots of it as quickly as possible, by hook or by crook.  The latter refers to institutional colleagues who are generally assumed to be above the fray and often the victims of unscrupulous and nefarious agents. 

It may not be “breaking news”,” but it’s certainly underreported news that quite a few education colleagues are not choosy about their partners as long as the student pipeline flows freely.  The end justifies the means, in other words.  In the spirit of “it takes two to tango,” they cross that tainted line as soon as they decide to work with a particular company,  in spite of having proof of wrongdoing on the part of said company. 

Since such agents recruit students in a way that puts partner schools’ interests first, students are not always well-informed about the admitting institution and therefore not always pleased with what they discover.  (This of course is one of the fundamental flaws of traditional commission-based recruitment.)

This can result in lackluster student retention and negative word-of-mouth advertising, which reflect poorly on both the school and the agent.  That’s the long-term view.  The short-term end result is that the institution gets its student(s) and the agent gets its commission(s). 

Aside from agents, there are other education companies for whom cheating is a way of doing business.  An example I’ve cited in the past is one foreign company that essentially bribed students to attend its fair by offering a cash payment to each attendee who brought a friend. That clearly crossed the line from incentive to bribe, wouldn’t you agree?

Those colleagues who choose to work with unethical education agents are co-conspirators, no better than their partners in crime, conjuring up the image evoked by this instructive and timeless quote from Benjamin Franklin:  He that lieth down with dogs, shall rise up with fleas.  Best to avoid the dogs and therefore the fleas.

MAA

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The Education Agent Issue in the US: Like a Bad Penny

bad pennyIt’s reminiscent of those trick candles that delight children and adults alike.  (OK, some adults.)  You blow them out and they continue to relight themselves – like magic!  While the US was late to the agent debate, actions that have been taken to date, while most would agree represent progress, have clearly not assuaged everyone’s concerns about the academic well-being of students who are, or should be, after all, front and center for those of us who are involved in educational advising.  

With the recent Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) draft policy (PDF), which would prohibit its accredited institutions from using incentive-based compensation in international student recruitment, it appears that “it ain’t over till it’s over” regarding this contentious issue.

MSCHE, which accredits 525 institutions in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, and Washington, D.C., has essentially chosen to extend the Title IV restrictions on incentive-based compensation that apply to domestic student recruitment to international students.

msche logoAside from being a shot across the bow of supporters of agency-based recruitment, what are the practical implications of this policy move?  Will it make a difference?  Is this rule binding?  Probably not, but MSCHE-accredited institutions would be well-advised to follow it lest an infraction become a sticking point in their (re)accreditation.  Will the other regional accrediting agencies follow in MSCHE’s regulatory footsteps?  Only time will tell. (Regional accreditation is the gold standard of institutional accreditation in the US.)

Once again, this raises a fundamental question that advocates of commission-based recruitment tend to ignore, or believe can be addressed with band-aid solutions that often amount to nothing more than window dressing.  Is it even possible to regulate this often shady global industry?  Stay tuned!

MAA

Point/Counterpoint

This is an exchange of comments that appeared in response to a late July article entitled SUNY Bets Big on Agents that appeared in Inside Higher Ed.  The article is about “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. “ 

 Point:  Enforcing the impossible; there are alternatives  

Posted by Marty Bennett , Marketing Coordinator at EducationUSA on July 26, 2011 at 2:15pm EDT

In the end, there is a clear alternative to agents: EducationUSA, the U.S. Department of State’s network of 400 advising centers in 170 countries, serving as the official source on U.S. higher education for students in those countries. This professionally trained group of advisers serve as what we would call in the U.S. college guidance counselors for all the students who don’t have them in their schools (which is the greater majority). In all their training their mission is to provide accurate, unbiased, comprehensive, objective and timely information about accredited educational institutions in the United States and guidance to qualified individuals on how best to access those opportunities. I encourage all U.S. institutional admissions representatives to explore the ways EducationUSA can assist you in your recruitment of international students before opening Pandora’s Box of agents.

If Only It Were That Simple (aka The Other Shoe Drops)

Posted by Mark Ashwill , Managing Director at Capstone Vietnam on September 4, 2011 at 6:30am EDT

Mr. Bennett begins his comment (“Enforcing the impossible; there are alternatives”) with this bold but unsupported assertion: “In the end, there is a clear alternative to agents: EducationUSA.” If only it were that simple. Anyone who works in this field knows that EducationUSA is a bit player in most countries, one of many options available to “consumers” of US higher education.

As much as I admire the work of EducationUSA advisers, the number of people they serve is relatively small, the resources they command are extremely limited and the services they provide are very basic. Vietnam is an excellent case in point. There’s only so much that one adviser in the Embassy (Hanoi) and two in the Consulate General (Ho Chi Minh City) can do in a country of 90 million that suffers from an incurable case of study abroad fever and where the US is the preferred overseas study destination.

Most young people planning to study overseas engage the services of an agent – some reputable, others not (hence the need to professionalize the industry). A growing number simply apply on their own with the help of friends, student organizations (e.g., VietAbroader) and/or US institutions.

As others have noted, in order to be successful in recruiting students, US schools must make recruitment a key component of their internationalization strategies and adopt diversified approaches that could include the judicious use of agents (passive), marketing (proactive) and, yes, taking advantage of the services offered by EducationUSA.  To put all of their eggs in one basket would be pure folly.

Mark A. Ashwill
Hanoi, Vietnam
Blog:  https://markashwill.wordpress.com/