US: International higher education needs recruiters

US higher education institutions possess enormous educational capacity, and a growing number of young people worldwide are clamouring for access. Linking the large US educational market to this expanding global demand poses challenges. One major challenge is to provide qualified students with the appropriate information to select the best programmes and institutions, and to provide assistance to apply and gain admission.

Few colleges or universities have the funds or the expertise to conduct an effective global student recruitment programme in today's increasingly competitive international higher education market.

Many US institutions remain hesitant to employ overseas student recruiting agencies without assurances that they operate according to high professional standards and provide quality services to prospective international students. Further, there is an ongoing debate within the US regarding the ethics of entering into partnerships with recruiting agents. US government agencies have taken conflicting postures on the issue.

The American International Recruitment Council (AIRC) was founded in 2008 by a leading group of accredited US colleges and universities to establish and promote high professional standards in international student recruitment.

AIRC is a 501(c)(3) non-profit membership organisation registered with the US Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission as a Standard Development Organisation. Membership currently includes 125 accredited US colleges and universities and 32 certified student recruitment agencies with offices in 39 countries.

AIRC has developed a rigorous process of certification for international recruitment agencies seeking to work with US colleges and universities, one closely patterned on the US higher education accreditation process.

The case for recruitment agencies

In past decades a highly competitive global student market has developed and international recruitment agencies are firmly established within it.

Although the US continues to be the most attractive destination for international students, colleges and universities that want to attract these students cannot afford to ignore the realities of this marketplace. Conducting effective global recruitment poses more challenges than recruiting domestically.

First, the sheer scope of recruiting internationally, and trying to engage in several major markets simultaneously, is daunting. Most institutions have small international recruitment staffs (or none), and the cost of deploying them internationally is prohibitive. Institutions that rely solely on their staff resources can be present in only a few international locations for a few days each year.

Second, it is difficult to understand the unique and subtle complexities of individual international markets and to deploy the most effective strategies and marketing techniques. Individual institutions simply cannot develop the expertise to operate effectively in a diverse range of cultures.

Third, the international student marketplace is very competitive. US institutions compete with universities from many nations, not just peer institutions domestically. Nations with more centralised higher education systems, such as Australia, have organised well-funded national initiatives to increase their institutions' share of the global student market. International students represent a major source of revenue. Competition is fierce and the US is losing market share.

Recruitment agencies have also proven to be popular with prospective students.

Faced with a bewildering flood of information over the internet, often only in English, students struggle to choose among thousands of institutions and to understand the complexities of the admissions process, financial issues and visa challenges. Understandably, they seek local recruitment and advising agencies, staffed by local bilingual counselors, in their local time zone, to help them find their way through this confusing maze.

Although disreputable agents will not usually survive for long in the competition for clients, AIRC recognises the compelling need for the development of professional standards governing the work of recruitment agents.

International student recruitment is a new profession and it takes time for best practices to evolve and be defined and for standards development organisations to become established and recognised. This is AIRC's mission.

Critics of recruitment agencies

Critics of international recruitment agencies often exaggerate the scope of abuses and make unsupported claims.

For example, one leading critic recently claimed that institutions using recruitment agents have authorised their agents to make admissions decisions on behalf of the institution; however no evidence supports this claim. Critics of recruitment agencies should be more careful and judicious in their claims, and avoid negative generalisations that are not based on factual data. Criticism should be based on evidence, not anecdote

Critics also charge that recruitment agents cannot properly serve prospective students because they often only represent a few institutions, causing them to recommend only these institutions to their clients even if other institutions might be better suited for the student.

Agents are portrayed as ethically impaired, favouring easy commissions over the best match. But this holds for all kinds of broker-mediated exchanges. Consumers are skilled at dealing with it and punish unethical professionals.

The profit motive, critics also claim, corrupts the advising process leading to students being placed at inappropriate academic institutions. Of course, such professional misconduct is possible. However, may not the profit motive lead to unethical practice in most professions?

Physicians, lawyers and stock brokers are compensated on the basis of the services they provide. The more services they provide, whether needed or not, the more they are compensated. Yet in all of these fields, we still rely on professionals to serve us appropriately. All mature professions have developed standards, best practices and sanctions to guide them. AIRC believes that this should be the case with international student recruitment agents. It is our mission to lead this effort.

Finally, opponents of international recruiting agencies argue that US financial aid law prohibits institutions from paying commissions to recruit American students. If it is illegal to pay domestic commissions for recruited students, they argue, shouldn't international commissions also be illegal?

But this logic leads to the conclusion that anything illegal in the United States should be illegal outside the US as well, an obviously absurd conclusion.

Furthermore, it is important to realise that the ban on commission-based recruitment in the US was included in the laws governing federal financial aid and was enacted to protect these funds from predatory practices. The international context is different, and the statute in question explicitly exempts commission-based recruiting for students not eligible for federal financial aid dollars.

This criticism fails to make an important distinction, that is, between activities which are inherently unethical and those which may be unethical depending on how they are done. AIRC holds that it is not inherently unethical for agents to represent individual universities or to receive commission-based payments for recruiting students.

Unethical practice in international recruiting is not unlike many avenues of professional practice. Certainly, there is the possibility of abuse and unethical behavior on the part of recruitment agents. Undoubtedly, such professional ethical abuses have and will take place.

The remedy is to set high professional standards, encourage the development of best practices, and establish structures that reward good behaviour and discourage abuses.


The global international student marketplace is a reality. There is no indication that it will disappear. US colleges and universities need to compete effectively in this market in order to retain leadership in attracting international students.

International student recruitment agents have established an important place in the international student marketplace in many parts of the world. While individual colleges and universities will make their own decisions regarding whether they will use international recruitment agents as a component in their recruitment programme, an increasing number of US institutions are doing so and this trend will continue.

While the AIRC plays a fundamental role in promoting best practices in international recruitment, many other organisations need to be involved. US colleges and universities must demand the highest professional standards by using the services of AIRC certified agencies whenever possible and promoting AIRC standards.

US higher education associations concerned with admissions and recruitment can play a valuable role by focusing on professional development programmes and on best practices for staff of both institutions and agencies.

US government-supported educational advising centers around the world − which should be expanded and strengthened − can be extremely helpful in providing valuable education and professional development for local recruitment agents that have demonstrated their commitment to best practices.

In addition, the US government agencies involved in international student recruitment, namely the Department of Commerce's US Commercial Service, and the Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, should resolve their differences regarding international student recruitment, and develop policies to encourage and assist international agents dedicated to high performance.

AIRC stands prepared to work with all organisations dedicated to improving standards in international student recruitment.

* Norm Peterson is Vice Provost for International Education at Montana State University; Stephen Foster is Associate Vice President for International Affairs at Wright State University; and Mitch Leventhal is Vice Chancellor for Global Affairs at State University of New York. All three authors are members of the board of the American International Recruitment Council, AIRC.

* A more complete discussion of these issues can be found in the January 2011 AIRC White Paper, "Towards Professional Standards and Practices in International Student Recruitment," which can be found here