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Recruiting International Students Should Be About More Than Just Revenue

By Matthew Cameron

There’s definitely something to be said for the idea of increasing out-of-state enrollment at public universities. In today’s Los Angeles Times, however, the paper’s editorial board raises a red flag that is worth considering:

As an advisory panel recommended, the university [University of California] must not accept out-of-state and foreign students who do not meet high admissions criteria. The extra money might be tempting, but lower standards would reduce UC’s reputation, the very thing it is trying to prevent by enrolling nonresidents.

This concern is particularly relevant in light of an ongoing controversy about colleges’ use of commission-based recruiting agencies to attract international students to their campuses. The problem with this model is that it encourages agents to recruit as many international students as possible, regardless of their academic or cultural fit at a particular university. So a Malaysian student with an interest in engineering might end up at a New England liberal arts school rather than a science- and technology-based institution on the West Coast.

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This isn’t a good approach, but Ben Wildavsky correctly pointed out last week that eliminating commission-based agents wouldn’t necessarily lead to a system that is free of perverse incentives. If admissions officers were pressured by deans to recruit more international students whose tuition could plug budget gaps, then they still would run the risk of enrolling students who would be better off elsewhere. Moreover, admissions offices at cash-strapped universities might not have the resources to develop strong recruiting presences abroad.

It seems like private recruiting agencies can remain a part of the system if a few changes are made to how they operate. First, standards should be put in place to ensure that agencies don’t misrepresent their client schools or charge prospective students and their families for their services. Just as important, though, are the reforms that are needed to the payment model. Agents should be paid a flat fee and any bonus they receive should only be paid out once their recruits graduate. That way, agents will be rewarded for helping kids obtain degrees rather than for simply helping universities collect more tuition money.