When Xiaoxi Li, a 20-year-old from Beijing, decided she should go to college in the United States, she applied only to Ohio University — not that she knew much about it.
“I heard of Ohio, of course,” Ms. Li said. “I knew it was in the middle, and has agriculture.”
What brought her here was the recommendation of a Chinese recruiting agent, JJL Overseas Education Consulting and Service Company. For about $3,000, JJL helped Ms. Li choose a college, complete the application and prepare for the all-important visa interview.
“Everyone I know used an agent,” she said. “They are professionals. They suggested Ohio University might be the best for me. They have a good relationship with Ohio University.”
Actually, JJL has more than a good relationship with Ohio University. Unknown to Ms. Li, it has a contract, under which the agent gets a $1,000 commission for each undergraduate it sends.
British and Australian universities have for years paid commissions to overseas recruiting agents, and as a result have attracted a growing share of international students. Now the practice is spreading in the United States, especially at community colleges and public universities eager to enroll more international students, who may pay several times the in-state tuition. Many institutions that use agents, including some small private religious colleges, are not well known; without recruiters, they have little hope of attracting students from around the world to diversify their campuses.
But the use of agents is raising uncomfortable questions and strong feelings, with some education officials queasy about a system in which those who advise students on their college selection have a financial stake in the choice, an approach they fear could make the college-admissions process into a global bounty hunt.
“Putting recruiters on any kind of commission makes them out and out sales agents,” said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.
Like JJL, many agents collect hefty fees from both sides — the students they advise, and the universities they contract with — leaving some to question whose interest is being served. Even some advocates of recruiting agents see a need for an ethics code.
“We should be doing this, but we should be doing it right,” said Mitch Leventhal, vice provost of international affairs at the University of Cincinnati, which has contracts with agents. “And I don’t think it’s right for students to have to pay a lot if the agent is also getting paid by the university. I don’t think it’s ethical.”
Agents range from huge operations like JJL to mom-and-pop outfits — and from reputable to fly-by-night. No one keeps track of how many agents there are, how many receive commissions from universities or how many students they send to the United States. But those familiar with the flow of international students say that thousands, mostly from Asia, use agents to come to American institutions, particularly community colleges with intensive English programs.
Some agents are paid mostly through commissions from universities; others are paid entirely by the students, with the university never knowing that an agent was involved. The State Department also operates hundreds of offices worldwide advising students on study in the United States.
Many colleges see contracts with overseas agents as a win-win proposition, helping to bring in far more tuition dollars than are paid out in commissions. They also see the foreign students as attractive both for their contributions to the local economy and the international bridges they help to build. Ohio, where many institutions are contracting with agents, recently adopted a strategic higher-education plan specifically calling for international recruiting.
But Mr. Nassirian argues that the process has invisible losers. “If there is a natural limit to the capacity of our educational system to take foreign students, isn’t it better to get the best qualified rather than those with the ability to pay?” he asked.
A Legal Exception Overseas
A legal disparity makes matters still murkier. Federal law forbids universities to pay recruiters based on how many American students they enroll, a ban meant to block aggressive recruiters from signing up unqualified students for college, including welfare recipients, in order to pocket the commissions — knowing the students would be likely to default on federal student loans.
The law makes a specific exception for overseas students, who are not eligible for such loans. But some policy experts say that to keep the profit motive out of college recruiting, the practice should not be allowed overseas, either.
Still, those who use overseas agents say they can play a valuable role. For Asian families who speak little or no English, but have a powerful longing to get their children a prestigious education, agents help navigate the bewildering process of producing transcripts, selecting a college and getting a visa. For American universities that are not well known abroad, and cannot afford to send admissions officers on expensive recruiting trips, local agents may be the way to compete in the globalized world of higher education.
“We can get on this high horse of pure behavior, that we will not pay an agent for recruiting students, while British and Australian and Canadian universities do it, and we can see all the students go elsewhere,” said Josep Rota, Ohio University’s associate provost for international affairs. “The old model of international students was that we sat here in the foothills of Appalachia, saying, dear world, come here and we will welcome you, and that worked until 9/11. But then they stopped coming. If we want to continue to bring them here, we have to recruit.”
Ohio University, a public institution with more than 20,000 students, has done well with commissioned agents, especially in China, the source of more than half its foreign undergraduates. JJL has sent more than a third of them.
“I came on a plane with about 30 other students who all used JJL,” said Fei Peng, a 20-year-old from Shanghai who arrived in Ohio in August.
Ms. Peng, like Ms. Li and all the Chinese students interviewed on campus, did not know the university paid the agent for each student who enrolled. While a few said the commissions gave them pause, they were generally satisfied with their agents’ services, both in selecting a university and in preparing them for the visa interview.
“They give you a lot of questions, and you practice good answers,” said Ms. Li, who has wire-rimmed glasses, black nail polish and an earnest manner.
Many of the Chinese undergraduates come from big cities and appreciate the quiet of small-town Athens, although some say life here can be boring, if they have no car, and are not interested in partying. They see study in the United States as a back-door route to success in China, where most failed to win admission to the top Chinese universities. Most come from one-child families, with parents who are very involved in planning their success, and willing to pay the United States’ high tuition costs — about $18,000 a year at Ohio University, double the in-state tuition.
Mr. Rota said he was delighted that his campus had 113 Chinese undergraduates this fall, four times as many as the previous year, and that generally, they were doing well. But he remains wary.
“We know that working with agents is potentially dangerous, that many of them are not honest, and that we have to be extremely selective,” he said. “One condition for them to continue working with us is that they send the kind of students we want, who will stay here and succeed, not come and use their visa for inappropriate purposes and disappear into the woodwork.”
‘A Lot of Gouging Going On’
Still, he hopes to use more agents to increase the international enrollment; the university already has agents in Turkey and Taiwan, and is looking for partners in Vietnam and Korea. Throughout Asia and to a lesser extent other parts of the world, thousands of agents offer help to students seeking admission to an English-speaking university, charging them fees that may be a few hundred dollars, or far more. “Some agents charge as much as $30,000,” said John Robert Cryan of the University of Toledo, which works with agents, but pays no commissions. “There’s a lot of gouging going on.”
JJL, which is licensed by the Chinese government, sent about 2,000 students to American colleges over the last year, and many more to Australia and the United Kingdom. Li Zhen, the vice manager of JJL’s United States department, said students paid fees ranging from about $2,000 to apply to a community college to about $5,000 for the most selective universities, for which the agency charges extra. JJL helps students apply anywhere they want, including universities that pay no commissions.
“My personal record, my best, was getting a student to U.C.L.A.,” he said.
Just as agents vary, so too do the commissions. Ohio University is on the low side, paying $1,000 for each undergraduate, or 10 percent of tuition for the English language program.
“The market range is anywhere from 10 to 25 percent of tuition,” said Visakan Ganeson, director of international programs at Skagit Valley College in Mount Vernon, Wash., which gets about half of its 200 international students through commissioned agents. “How much you pay depends on your position in the market.”
The most selective universities, deluged with applications, do not contract with agents.
Overseas recruiting agents have long been used on the West Coast, especially by community colleges like Skagit Valley, which offer intensive English courses to prepare students for college-level work.
Linh Nguyen, 17, who came to Washington last fall after finishing 11th grade in Vietnam, applied to Skagit Valley on her agent’s advice. “They told me that it’s a small college, but it has a good quality,” said Ms. Nguyen, who paid $300 to her agent.
Bates Technical College, an open-admissions institution in Tacoma, Wash., pays 15 percent of the first year’s tuition to its agents in Taiwan and China, according to Cheri Loiland, the associate vice president for extended learning.
Mr. Leventhal of the University of Cincinnati, who formerly worked for a huge Australian recruiting agent, has been preaching the gospel of commission-based recruiting. The flow of international students to American universities has increased slowly in recent years, while the number going to Australia more than doubled, he said, largely because American universities recruit poorly in Asia.
“Most American universities do helicopter marketing,” Mr. Leventhal said. “They drop in for college fairs and road shows and then they take off. There’s no continuing presence overseas, no one on the ground who speaks the language and can answer questions any time. That’s something a lot of parents want.”