Are Student Recruitment Agents Creating More Dickinson Universities?

Dickinson State University is now the poster child of how some unscrupulous agents can bring down university’s reputation. DSU awarded nearly 400 degrees to unqualified Chinese students as the University was found to be “seriously lacking controls and oversight”, mostly due to use to agents which in turn led to misrepresentations and use of unofficial transcripts.

According to an internal review report by North Dakota University System a major issue was lack of requirement of using official academic documents. Students in collusion with agents were submitting their own versions of transcripts. The report notes “Transcripts are a basic excel spreadsheet where the student can enter any class or grade they desire. Some students have submitted transcripts from two different universities as either they just used the template and forgot to change the name or they simply copied another student’s transcript. These transcripts also have the official stamp from the university which can easily be a “cut and paste” which has been proven by a DSU professor. Additionally, these university stamps are sold in the markets in China and on the internet, thus anyone can buy one. DSU accepts these as official.” (p.20)

Apart from issue of official transcripts, agents were misrepresenting and overpromising to students themselves. “From 2008 onward there is a noticeably rapid decline in the level of documentation in the student’s files….Through interviews with current Chinese students, the recruiters told them and several other students, they work for DSU and not a recruiting agency….The recruiters promised the potential students they will get their DSU degree before they finish their required classes at their home university” (p.14). The report asserts that agents in China were not performing according to their contracts. “They [Agents] admittedly are driven by quantity of student and not quality as was communicated in an email from one of the agents in China.” (p.19)
Recommended solutions in the report:

  • “Terminate all agreements with the agents. Use DSU recruiters to do your recruiting at the approved partner schools.” (p. 19)
  •  “Require all international students to send official, sealed transcripts directly from their institution to World Education Services (WES) for authentication and a course by course evaluation within their first term of enrollment.
  • Require a bank statement in the form of a letter directly from the bank.
  • Require all students from non-English speaking countries to take and pass only the TOEFL or IELTS test prior to admission.” (p. 20)

In such an unfortunate situation, I hate to say “I told you so” but here are my earlier posts on the warning signs:

Agents for international student recruitment: Have we not learned anything from Australia and the UK?

The Changing Profession of Admissions: From Counselling to Selling?

International recruitment agents: Playing with fire?

Recruitment Agent Debate: Are Institutions Ready for Disclosures?


Dr. Rahul Choudaha


  1. Great article and I applaud the honesty and integrity!
    I started my own agency this year in Canada in the hopes to "clean-up" the unethical practices that many agents are using. International education is a billion dollar industry and I do believe there is greed that outweighs moral behavior. It is my belief that commission is the crutch to the problem. My mission is to not solely rely on commission and work with ALL university and colleges and ultimately work toward the best interest of each individual student. Agents must keep this as a focus! Partnering with a limited number of schools is so far from "best practices" that this should be the tip off to those seeking help in their international studies. The honest and ethical agent will guide their clients based on needs and encourage admission to ALL of the superior schools.
    Universities that partner with limited numbers of agents are just as much to blame. They only give contracts to those who can send the most students. There is no room for contracting with agents who don't have the numbers and in order to get the numbers…..some agents might be tempted into unethical practices…. Viscous Circle!
    I do believe agents are needed….but of course agents that have the best interest of students as their primary focus and the knowledge of international education to go with it!

  2. Hi Rahul
    I've only heard a little bit about the situation at Dickinson, so I don't know the whole story. But based on your article it seems to me the blame is not with the agents entirely. It sounds as though Dickinson was almost completely at fault for allowing this to happen. That university clearly had no control over what their agents were doing, had not vetted the people supposedly representing them, had no checks or verification in place to know what was happening…the list goes on.

    Yes, there are unscrupulous agents – no one denies this. But a partnership with an agent is a two-way deal, both the university and the agent are in it together. It is up to a university to make sure they know who they are working with, to vet and then manage their agents, to have constant communication with and knowledge about an agent's work. Here in the UK we have been working with agents for many years, but we also know how to work with agents. It seems as though universities in America have yet to learn how to do it properly.

  3. Hello Rahul,

    as usual you have a very concise way of describing the problem. We are currently setting up a new programme (foundation year) in Berlin/Germany for a number of excellent HEIs and thus check out various agents and their reputation. Interesting how differently people judge the same agency and how closely that seems to be related to the standing of the HEI. In Germany, we are extremely cautious. No student file coming in via an agent would be considered unless screened by a special expert organisation on credentials (and fraud!). I guess as some said before, the greed of the HEI makes cheating by agents possible in the first place. However, rational choice theory tells you that this only pays off in the short run, in the long run you sell your rep cheap. So we would rather take less students but good ones than a lot with weak or no qualifications. We cannot afford to loose reputation which is the only currency that counts in higher ed.

    Hope we will make the right choices with the agents (and agencies) we will select this spring.

    Take care my friend and see you at NAFSA (btw. this could be a good topic for a session at NAFSA, EAIE, APAIE and alike).

  4. Dear Rahul, having read this post after your recent article on agents in University World News I had to comment. As said by some of the others before me the blame is not only on the agents. Having had an agency myself, having worked with agents when working for various universities and recently having written an article for the EAIE's Handbook on Internationaization (soon to be published) on the topic of working with agents, I know that when selecting the right agent and managing them properly – thus that you built a partnership – the relationship can work for all concerned, not least of which the student. As in any business you have "the good, the bad and the ugly", but let's not only focus on "the bad and the ugly".

    And Uwe: on the topic of sessions at NAFSA, EAIE, etc: we did submit to NAFSA last summer a very intersting topic, which got rejected. And EAIE has had sessions and workshops on this topic for may years already.


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