Roger McKinney. JOPLIN, Mo. — Some colleges and universities around the country have come under fire for using questionable recruiting agencies to funnel students to the United States.
The National Association for College Admission Counseling proposed a ban this spring on the use of international recruiters because of its concern that unscrupulous agents exaggerate students’ English skills and even allow them to skip English tests and submit falsified applications.
The association said that paying recruiters introduces “an incentive for recruiters to ignore the student interest” and invites “complications involving misrepresentation, conflict of interest and fraud.” By July, the group had backed away from the ban, acknowledging a “lack of alternatives” for dispensing information about American higher education in many parts of the world.
Officials at Pittsburg (Kan.) State University and Missouri Southern State University said they use outside recruiting agencies on a limited basis and have taken measures to ensure the agencies they use are reputable. International recruiting has contributed to a sharp spike in the number of foreign students seeking an American education. A recent report by the Institute for International Education showed a 32 percent increase in the number of international students in the U.S. compared with a decade ago. Nearly a quarter of the students here for the 2010-11 academic year came from China. Many others hailed from India and South Korea.
But as American universities work to bring in ever-greater numbers of international students, some professors and admissions counselors are questioning the motives of the professionals who have helped attract so many foreign scholars to their campuses. Peggy Blumenthal, an executive vice president at the not-for-profit Institute of International Education, said recruiting agents sometimes get paid thousands of dollars per student and “have a very large incentive” to deliver students even though they may not be qualified to attend schools in the U.S.
MSSU uses one outside agency, in China, said Derek Skaggs, admissions director. He said the agency collects its fees from the student, and MSSU doesn’t pay anything. He said the university was careful to identify an agency that is honest. Darren Fullerton, MSSU vice president for student affairs, said the university also checks to ensure that the recruiting agency isn’t overextending promises.
Chuck Olcese, director of International Affairs at PSU, said he works with agencies in Germany, Vietnam and Bangladesh, which is a new arrangement.
Officials at those schools said they did not want to reveal the names of their recruiters, saying they have done a lot of work to identify reputable agencies and naming them would be the equivalent of giving away a trade secret. Olcese said PSU pays the agents on a per-student basis, typically 10 percent of the student’s tuition in the first semester. The cost of tuition for nonresidents at PSU is $14,166, according to the university. Olcese said the money is paid from Intensive English Program funds, not state funds. Tuition for students in the Intensive English Program is nearly $11,000 per year.
He said PSU has an arrangement with an agent the university has a good relationship with in India. PSU has set up its own recruiting office in Hyderabad, staffed by the agent. The agent is a graduate of the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla.
“That’s where you’d like to get with an agent in terms of trust,” Olcese said. That agent doesn’t collect fees for services.
Missouri State
College administrators who rely on recruiters are quick to defend them, saying they are more familiar with overseas customs and school systems. By using recruiters, Missouri State University leaders “can focus on developing and delivering curriculum instead of going out and recruiting students and developing individual sponsors,” said David Meinert, associate dean of the university’s business school. Recruiters are “able to deliver as an intermediary something that we would have trouble delivering.”
When Missouri State’s Springfield campus decided in 2007 to create an executive master’s of business administration degree program for visiting Chinese students, the school realized it needed a recruiter steeped in that country’s language, culture and educational practices.
The university hired the International Management Education Center in Hong Kong under a deal that paid recruiters $10,000 to $12,000 for each graduate student. The school kept the balance of student payments ranging from $15,000 to $22,000. MSU has 1,134 international students contributing $22.9 million to the local economy, according to the Association of International Educators.

But some professors question the program’s academic rigor, noting participants do not take the English proficiency tests usually required of international students and frequently show up unprepared. When the same doubts that arose in Missouri spread to China, some student sponsors — a term that refers to local governments, schools corporations and other Chinese institutions — said they wanted to withdraw from the program.
Although some schools eschew hiring recruiters in favor of building close relationships with international schools in targeted countries, at Missouri State, Meinert said, the school’s partner does not work directly with students or their families. Instead, it seeks deals with sponsors who then steer groups of students toward the program — and continue to offer support after enrollment.
“We’re not looking to find an individual, to go hunting for one student at a time,” Meinert said. “An agent’s relationship with a student ends when they get a check.” The Associated Press contributed to this article.