August 28, 2013

UMaine system paying agents to recruit international students

The agents' company gets 80 percent of each student’s first-year tuition: about $20,000. Advocates say it increases diversity and tuition streams, but critics say the system is ripe for abuse.

By NELL GLUCKMAN Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting

This September, among the new students attending the University of Maine’s orientation in Orono will be two students from China and one each from India, Vietnam and Bangladesh.

click image to enlarge

Stevens Hall at the University of Maine campus in Orono.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

That the students are from abroad is not new – the University of Maine had 341 degree-seeking, international students last year. But the way they got here is.

They didn’t come here on their own. They were recruited in their home countries by agents paid on a per-head basis by the public university.

The University of Maine System will use the controversial method to bring more foreign students to both Orono and the University of Southern Maine over the next five years.

The sensitive nature of the commission-based recruiting is best illustrated by the fact that it can be illegal if done within the U.S. The federal government is currently suing a for-profit education company for fraudulently recruiting students to its colleges. And that company and the company hired by the University of Maine System (UMS) – called Study Group -- are owned by the same parent company.

University administrators said their decision is well thought through.

“We chose Study Group for several reasons,” said Janet Waldron, senior vice president for administration and finance at the University of Maine. “We liked their holistic approach to working with students and we were looking for a partner that had a commitment to high-quality student success.”

UMS Chancellor James Page said increasing the number of international students at Maine’s flagship university will improve diversity and create a new source of tuition revenue.

“Engaging foreign students builds valuable relationships between them and our students, campuses, businesses, and communities that are increasingly important in a global economy,” he wrote in a memo to a board of trustees committee.

He also said UMS needs another source of students and tuition because of Maine’s declining high school student population and the inclination of many of Maine’s top seniors to go out of state or to private colleges. That lost tuition needs to be made up and UMS needs outside help to do that.

The international education market, he said, is “very complicated and it’s highly competitive. We don’t have the resources to go after many, many countries.”

A plan provided to the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting by UMS states that the two campuses with Study Group-recruited students will bring in about $20 million in tuition from foreign students over five years, plus room and board.

But that won’t come without a cost. Study Group will get 80 percent of each student’s first-year tuition (about $20,000) and five percent in subsequent years ($1,250 per student). Study Group covers not only the expense of recruiting the students but also of providing them with English and other preparatory classes and guidance.

The universities, though, have another expense of their own: a $1.5 million bill to renovate buildings where the foreign students will receive the Study Group training. UMS will spend $700,00 to renovate Estabrooke Hall at the University of Maine and $800,000 to renovate Upton-Hastings Hall at the University of Southern Maine in Gorham. They are expected to be completed this fall.

Study Group is a global recruiting machine that has already kicked into gear for the University of Maine. A contract was signed in March and now the company will use its network of 2,500 independent recruiters, known in the industry as agents, to represent the University of Maine at college fairs and high schools and in counseling sessions with students and their families in Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, Europe, Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

The students starting this fall are just a harbinger. By 2016, the company is expected to be recruiting 300 students per year into the University of Maine and 100 per year into the University of Southern Maine, according to materials provided to the system’s board of trustees.

(Continued on page 2)

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