Recruitment Agent Debate: Are Institutions Ready for Disclosures?

International student recruitment using agents is evolving into a hot debate in the US. There have been arguments in favor by Mitch Leventhal and AIRC and against the agents by Philip Altbach and Alan Ruby arguing for institutions to be responsible for good behavior. Finally, NACAC proposed to stop double standards of what constitutes best practices in recruiting international and domestic students. In the context of these development, today I also attended an interesting session at NAFSA entitled “Opportunities and Challenges of Working with Education Counseling and Recruitment Agents”  The panelists supported the use of agents for recruiting students.

My take on agency debate is two-fold. First, a small segment of good agents do not make the industry. Second, are institutions and “good” agents ready to provide evidence of their effectiveness?

Segments: The agent debate is about 95% of  unethical and unprofessional agents and not about 5% of good quality of agents.I agree that there is a segment of students which needs information, counseling and support  and since not every university has a cache of Harvard, there are a large number of institutions which also need help. Thus, agents may serve a function of bridging information gap. The challenge is that the majority of the agents are engaged in offering “short-cuts” many times in collusion with students. Thus, by engaging agents, universities are implicitly approving of these short-cuts.

I commented during the session that majority of the agents are minting money by helping students not getting information and advice but by making “short-cuts” possible. These short-cuts include fraudulent degrees and financial documents, canned essays and misrepresentation. What is the evidence to it?  Consider, Tri Valley University, where agents, university and some students knowingly engaged in an unacceptable practice and misrepresentation. Or consider the recent immigration challenges faced by the Australia and the UK which were largely facilitated by agents. Please note, Australia and the UK have been in the business of agents for a while and are considered to have developed “best practices” in agency model and still could not avoid the cases of misrepresentation and falsified information presented by some agents and students in collusion.

The question is how do we know that 5% of good agents are good? How can we avoid 95% of the “bad” agent to be passed off under the name of 5% of good agents?

Disclosures: The solution lies in what Mitch Leventhal responded to my question during the session. He said there is limitation of supporting data about quality of agents and he also said that there is a need to set high standards of transparency. So, I call AIRC and AIRC supporting member (institutions and “good” agents)  to set high standards and role model behavior of disclosing comparative data about students recruited via agents. In other words, disclose profile and performance of students recruited via agents vs. rest of the international students. To make it simple let’s start just with GPA in foreign institution, standardized tests scores and first semester GPA in the US (see example). I am very confident that none of the universities will share this data. Why? Because, it will clearly show that students accepted through agency-based model needed too much help (read “short-cuts”) to perform as well as all other students on campus.

The reality is universities are facing budget cuts and international students add revenue stream, however, the solution is not “short-cuts”, the solution is high degree of disclosure and professional standards, which should start from the universities which are already engaged with agency relationship. As in any the housing bubble, do we want to be part of the process which inflated the bubble or busted it?

What are your thoughts/comments?

Dr. Rahul Choudaha

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