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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“International recruitment offices in higher education are making big strides by partnering with agents”

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Now here’s something you don’t see every day, an advertorial or infomercial, if you will, in The Chronicle of Higher Education (CHE), the weekly “bible” of US higher education.  Here’s the deal:  IDP, in this case, pays a lot of money ($11k) to place an article about how great it is for colleges and universities to work with education agents as a key part of their international student recruitment strategy.   This benefits CHE’s bottom line and IDP pushes its message out to anyone who’s anyone in US higher education and beyond.

When I first saw the headline and the article, my first reaction was “Wow!”, until I saw this caveat in small print a split second later:  Paid for and created by IDP.  This issue and IDP acquire a patina of honor, credibility, and respect by publishing this piece of paid advertising in an august publication, while the latter gets a wire transfer, obviously the short end of a stick that measures important intangibles in life. 

Memo to CHE:  In the future, increase the font size of the disclaimer and put it in bold red.

MAA

Meet the new boss, similar to the old boss: new agent regulations unveiled in Vietnam

logo-newerVietnam is a country in flux and the international education sector is no exception. In fact, it is a case study of changes and reforms. Mark Ashwill, the MD of Capstone Vietnam, looks at the current regulatory system for education agencies and what consultants must do to succeed in this exciting market.

This is the introduction to my latest PIE News blog post.  Follow this link to read the article in its entirety.

MAA

Decoding International Students’ Experiences With Education Agents: Insights for U.S. Institutions

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This is an excellent survey conducted by World Education Services (WES) about the use of education agents by students around the world – with the exception of Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa.

Here’s a brief note about their analysis, including some caveats.

Survey results are broken down by region of origin. We compare results for students from the top two sub-regions of origin – South and Central Asia, and East Asia – as well as from several major world regions: Sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, and Latin America and the Caribbean. *

The survey examines services used at different points in the enrollment funnel – discovery, application, and enrollment. It also provides insights into the different types of education agents used by international students in different parts of the world. These include institution-sponsored agents – those who receive commissions from or have a contract or agreement with U.S. institutions; and independent educational agents – those who are paid by the students and their families.

* Response rates from Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa were very low, thus findings are not discussed with one or two exceptions.

It paints a very mixed picture of agent use by survey respondents and highlights some of the fundamental flaws of agency-based recruitment. 

Follow this link to read the article in its entirety. 

As an aside, a recent trend I’ve noticed in Viet Nam is that of increasing numbers of students bypassing agents and applying directly to US colleges and universities.  (I view this as positive, by the way.)  Possible reasons include greater access to quality information and, consequently, more confidence on the part of students and their parents.  There is also the realization among many that the application procedures of some types of institutions are very simple.  Finally, many students have done their homework, know exactly where they want to go, and therefore have no need for an intermediary.  Survey, anyone?

MAA

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

NACAC Takes Step in the Right Direction

Admissions group calls on colleges to require recruiting agents to disclose their financial ties to those they are seeking to recruit.

d4c4zsvf_400x400_1I’m happy to see NACAC (National Association for College Admission Counseling) moving in this direction.  Ultimately, of course, it’s up to institutions to hold their education agents to high standards using a multifaceted carrot/stick approach.  The good news is that most US higher education colleagues care.  The uncomfortable truth is that some do not.  The latter care more about student referrals than they do about business ethics or integrity.  For them it’s all about “showing me the students,” even if they have to wash their hands (or take a shower) after meeting with their less-than-stellar agents.

Follow this link to read the article in its entirety.

MAA

“Take responsibility for ensuring ethical recruitment”

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Using education agents is fraught with risks, but those with a long-term vision realise that doing business ethically is better for business, so how do you choose wisely and ensure accountability?

Here’s my latest University World News piece, this time about ethical international student recruitment.  I wrote it in direct response to a July 2016 article entitled Internationalisation should be ethical and for all by Hans de Wit, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College.  One of his proposed black/white solutions was, in effect, to throw the baby out with the bathwater, before quickly (and realistically) acknowledging that “This is not likely to happen.”

What is the solution?

It would be in the interests of governments, universities and students if the participation of commercial recruiters, for-profit pathway providers and other intermediate businesses was stopped.

Here’s the introduction to my article to whet your appetite (or not):

It has been argued, in University World News and elsewhere, that the way to address the problem of unethical student recruitment agencies is to ban them.  But are all education agents inherently bad?  No.  Are there serious issues and potential pitfalls?  Absolutely.  While I agree that education agents should follow ethical business practices, I disagree that the solution is not to use any of them.

You can see that there were different takes (and takeaways), depending upon the interests and goals of the entity doing the Tweeting.

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Follow this link to read the article in its entirety.

MAA