Foreign students take high school route to university

Fed by growing demand abroad among parents who hope a US high school education will boost their child's attractiveness to top US universities, a small but growing number of US secondary schools are recruiting international students.

However, according to a new report, many international students may be going to schools whose counsellors feel uncertain about how to advise them on key matters that will help them build adequate foundations to progress to and succeed on a US degree course.

And that has raised red flags at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, known as NACAC, which released the report this month.

Findings show that 45% of private high schools and 4% of public high schools actively recruit international students, who help to diversify their student bodies and provide new sources of revenue at a time when the total number of US high school graduates has reached a plateau.

More than half (53%) of US counsellors – 78% of those at private and 45% at public schools – said at least one international student is enrolled in their school.

Nearly four in five (79%) said they felt either "slightly" or "not at all" prepared to advise those students on financial aid opportunities. And 69% felt "slightly" or "not at all" prepared to advise international students on English proficiency exams, which play a critical role in a non-native English speaker's chances of gaining a place at a US university and doing well on a degree course.

The survey "suggests a lot of recruitment outreach is taking place without making sure all the i's are dotted and the t's are crossed back at home", says Eddie West, NACAC's director of international initiatives. "A lot of our members feel ill-equipped to serve those students and serve them adequately."

Report on state of college admissions

The findings were part of NACAC's 2014 State of College Admission report, which includes survey responses from 729 high school counsellors in 2013 and 1,360 counsellors in 2014.

Drawing from trends identified by the non-profit Institute of International Education and the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, the annual report this year for the first time devoted a section to the impact of international students on its 14,000 members, especially high school counsellors.

Counsellors similarly reported uncertainty about how to advise domestic students who are considering going abroad for a college degree. Despite a modest uptick in the number of US students pursuing a college degree in another country, the report found that most counsellors had not encountered such cases, though one in five reported receiving visits from college admission officials representing non-US institutions.

US high schools have long hosted foreign students on short-term exchange programmes, but the new and fastest-growing generation of students is enrolling with the intent of staying longer, earning a high school diploma as the first step toward a US college degree.

Of 73,019 international students enrolled in US high schools in 2013, two-thirds were pursuing a high school diploma, more than three times the number of students doing so in 2004, according to the Institute of International Education, or IIE. One-third were exchange students, whose ranks grew just 13% between 2004 and 2013, IIE data show.

Schools climb on the bandwagon

Peter Morgan, director of college counselling at The Northwest School, a private school in Seattle that has been enrolling international students for more than three decades, worries that some schools are climbing on the bandwagon "without giving it full thought".

He says schools need to have supports in place to address the numerous challenges – including personal, academic and cultural – students typically face as they make the transition. International boarding students at his school, for example, pay about US$50,000 a year (versus about US$36,000 for domestic students) but they also require additional services.

Morgan says he is aware of some high schools that offer no English language training or support, for example, which can be crucial. "If you're going to do it you need to look beyond the money," he says.

College counsellors working with international students should be prepared to talk with students about how minimum score requirements for TOEFL – Test of English as a Foreign Language – and similar proficiency exams vary by institution, and about the difference between admission to a language bridge programme and a university, he says.

Counsellors also need to know that meeting a minimum score is often not enough, and that many colleges look at sub-score requirements too, he says.

"For the most selective schools, admitted international students usually present scores that far exceed the minimum published by the college," Morgan says. "If a student achieves a great composite score on the exam, but has one or more weak sub-scores, the college will likely not admit the student."

Concern over commercial agents

NACAC plans to build out its survey in future years as it develops programmes and resources to respond to the changing demographics, West says.

Of particular concern, he says, is the reliance at the high school level on commercial agents, a controversial practice in which independent recruiters are paid a commission by the school based on the number of students they bring to an institution.

Just 14% of counsellors said their institutions actively recruit internationally; of those, 71% said their schools rely on commercial agents. That's more than twice the 32% of counsellors who said they attend overseas recruitment fairs, the second most popular method.

NACAC's code of ethics has for decades barred the use of such agents, arguing that the financial arrangement poses a conflict of interest, raising the possibility that international students may end up at schools that benefit the agent rather than the students. (Commercial agents are different from independent consultants, who are paid by students to help them through the college search process.)

The US government also bars the practice at schools, as a condition for receiving federal student aid each year, but only for domestic college students because international students aren't eligible for federal aid.

The growing international student market has heightened concern among NACAC members about agents.

NACAC last September reversed its much-debated ban on the use of commission-based agents outside the United States, conceding that it has become common practice for countries such as Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom, with whom the United States increasingly competes for students at the university level. The ban on commissioned agents remains for domestic students.

But it also calls on its members, both at the college and high school levels, to act with integrity. NACAC's revised ethics code requires schools and universities to take steps to be accountable and transparent.

A NACAC guide, for example, urges member institutions to identify all relationships with agencies on their websites and prohibit unscrupulous agents who engage in "double-dipping", in which a recruiter both accepts a commission from a particular school and charges the student for the same services.

In the coming weeks it plans to release a guide called Trusted Sources, aimed at helping college-bound international students and parents differentiate between the sometimes confusing array of parties involved in overseas recruitment, including school-based counsellors, third-party consultants and US government sponsors.

Many recruiters do not earn a commission, but there are "also bad apples out there", says West. NACAC will urge institutions to post the guide on their websites and has plans to eventually publish it in other languages.

"Many, many students have absolutely no idea that the agents they're talking to have a relationship with these schools. They think they're getting [objective] advice."