International student mobility is big business. Approximately 2.8 million students study abroad, distributing at least $50 billion around the globe annually.

Most international students come from developing or middle-income countries, the majority from East and South Asia, and most are self-financed. They contribute major revenues to the institutions and countries where they study and represent a key part of internationalization.

The number of students pursuing opportunities abroad is no longer limited to individuals from elite backgrounds. This larger pool has less international exposure and fewer personal sources of information than earlier generations of mobile students. This group is looking for help and willing to pay for it. Universities see these students as important sources of revenue and contributors to diversity; competition for them has soared.

As a result, new enterprises have appeared to address the demands of this growing market. Recruitment agents are not new operators, and their participation in the university admissions process has always been controversial. No data are available on how many companies or individuals there are, but their presence is growing and an increasing number of universities are using these services.

Recruitment agents typically serve as local salespeople, but they are not university employees. Their presence ensures that the institutions that hire them are more accessible to students interested in going abroad. They act as local promoters and a conduit of international applications for their university clients. They are typically paid a commission that ranges from 10 to 25 percent of the first year’s tuition. The agents may, but do not necessarily, receive professional training from their university clients. There are generally no formal mechanisms for keeping them current on programs

Agents may guide students through the overwhelming amount of information available on the Internet, but their motivation does not consist of providing impartial information. Instead, it’s steering students to specific institutions.

The primary client for agents is the institution that hires them. In order to be successful, they must deliver an acceptable number of students to their sponsoring institutions. Of concern is their activities, source of their fees, propriety of their services and transparency, particularly to students. Many universities suspect that agents sometimes complete applications and write essays for their student clients.

The dynamic among an intermediary, an institution and a student is inevitably influenced by incentives and rewards. A recruitment agent’s income depends on directing students to specific institutions. While this action may result in a good match for the student, the incentives do not ensure the best match for the student.

Agents are entrepreneurs who earn their income from providing a service to two entities whose best interests may not be the same. The rewards arise from the relationship between the agent and an institution — not from service provided to the student. This presents a potential conflict of interest that professional standards cannot eliminate. As long as incentives favor the interests of the institution and agent over the interests of the student, professional standards will have limited effect.

Most of the arguments in defense of overseas agents appear somewhat hollow: Students cannot be expected to sort through vast amounts of data on opportunities abroad on their own; small institutions do not have staff or resources for effective international marketing campaigns; since agents are not going to disappear, standards should be set for their behavior; and the market will weed out unscrupulous recruiters.

Given the investment and consequences, students must participate actively in researching overseas options. It is too risky to have someone else make their decisions or influence them.

International students enrich every campus, but hosting them is a responsibility. When institutions work through agents, they sacrifice the benefits that result from the direct engagement in recruitment and the flow of information about foreign cultures, education systems and international student needs.

Alternatives exist. Universities can travel with companies that organize international recruitment trips or participate in overseas fairs. Institutions with limited budgets have found creative ways to increase their visibility overseas including recruiting through students on study-abroad programs, faculty who travel, Web-based events or by combining efforts (and budgets) of the admissions, alumni relations and development offices. They may make use of nonprofit advising centers maintained by the U.S. State Department, British Council, Canadian Education Centers and other agencies.

Not knowing what agents actually tell their clients leaves students (and universities) vulnerable. It is unrealistic to expect “the market” to regulate quality or unethical agents to be unsuccessful.

The “market model” assumes that students (as consumers) have the knowledge and experience necessary to distinguish quality service; that is unrealistic. Adequate oversight is impossible, and professional certification will only provide “ethical cover” and a false sense of security to the institutions and students alike.

The use of recruitment agents by universities and colleges is clouded by many factors. Their activities cannot be adequately monitored to guarantee that student interests are protected. No international standards can guarantee local activity or that the relationship between an agent and a university will be entirely transparent to the student. Furthermore, the incentives and rewards do not depend on ethical behavior.

Some universities are participating in a process to certify agents who adhere to ethical standards. Yet ethical behavior is interpreted differently in various cultures. Who will provide the necessary oversight to insure compliance with standards? By “outsourcing” recruitment, institutions are trusting their reputation and vital communication with students to a third party — this is a serious mistake.

Prospective students must ask good questions and make informed decisions about where to study. Alumni of foreign universities can help them. The Internet is a good tool, visits to education information centers or fairs can help and contact with university staff is essential. Paid recruiters are simply not necessary and work to the detriment of the process by standing between the exchange of information between students and institutions.

Liz Reisberg, a research associate at the Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, has 30 years of experience in international admissions. Philip G. Altbach is Monan professor of higher education and director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College.

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