The ethical debate over whether to use paid agents to recruit students abroad has polarized college admissions officials in the United States. No one disputes that the best interest of students must be protected, but their voices are conspicuously absent from the discussion.
For a Chinese-language newspaper, I recently did a report on the use of such agents in China. A study done at Iowa State University and published in the Journal of College Admission suggests that most Chinese undergraduates enrolled at American colleges had relied on intermediaries to help them navigate the admissions process. Through dozens of interviews with agents, students, and experts, it became clear to me why that is. A tremendous disconnect exists between Chinese students and American universities.
While many industry norms are questionable at best, agents provide necessary and important services. Unlike their American counterparts, the vast majority of Chinese high schools do not have guidance counselors, and many parents lack the English skills to help their children differentiate between an accredited college and a diploma mill. It is quite natural to seek professional help for what may well be the largest investment of their lives.
Agents also provide valuable information about the differences among universities and about campus culture, application requirements, and other information considered common knowledge in American society. Students have typically never received adequate training in academic or expository writing in their native languages, never mind English. Although many choose to write personal statements and graduate-level sample essays on their own, agents' editing assistance is highly valued.
Despite the positive effects, employing an intermediary often results in an unbalanced triangular relationship among the agent, applicant, and university, which can lead to manipulation of application material. Students don't know what they need to produce a successful application, while agents, afraid of losing business if their clients don't succeed, are all too willing to embellish information on personal statements, fabricate recommendation letters, assist in transcript alteration, and ghostwrite essays.
Ultimately, though, I believe American colleges are in large part to blame for this problem, because they have failed to effectively communicate with foreign applicants. Here are some measures colleges can take to make the application process clearer and thus mitigate both the need for agents and the incentive to falsify documents.
- Consider the parents. Construct Web pages in the applicant's mother tongue that explain entrance requirements; your policies on application fraud and the use of agents; and enrollment costs beyond tuition, room, and board; many families grossly underestimate additional costs. Have current foreign students contribute information they wish they had known before arriving. Provide a link to and explanation of EducationUSA, the main venue through which the United States promotes its higher education system abroad.
- Create an online application form tailored to the country of origin. Questions need to be pertinent to students' educational background; otherwise the university creates an incentive for false or exaggerated information. For example, I found that transcript alteration is one of the most common forms of fraud among undergraduate applicants because students and agents believe that grades are a prime determinant of admission. Yet many bright Chinese students may have mediocre GPA's because their teachers give them extremely rigorous tests.
- Be respectful of Chinese teachers. Most do not have the time or English skills to navigate online recommendation forms. Allow them to handwrite recommendations in their native language. Require the applicant to have the letters professionally translated and submit both copies with contact information. Often teachers will not agree to recommend a student unless the letter is written by someone else, simply because the process is too much of a headache for them.
- Make use of the China Academic Degrees and Graduate Education Development Center, which offers credential verification. This office is run under the auspices of the Chinese Ministry of Education and State Academic Degrees Committee of the State Council. China is one of the few countries that offers credential-verification services to foreign institutions.
- Provide better training and resources to admissions staff. Application falsification seems to be an overwhelming problem for many admissions offices in the United States, in part because they are unable to provide a professional assessment of foreign applications.
Even though agents, to avoid liability, generally do not recommend transcript alteration, once a client obtains permission from the high-school academic-affairs office the agent will often alter or delete grades to ensure that the client meets the minimum standards of a selected university. Schools are usually very willing to notarize these documents for the honor of having a graduate study abroad.
I contacted about 30 American institutions to ask them about problems they might be having with Chinese students' applications. To my surprise, only one person agreed to an interview. She said her office was updating its policy on fraud specifically because of problems with Chinese students: Professors had complained about their ability to participate in class. She said admissions officers take pains to check English ability through e-mail exchanges. When I asked if she could confirm the identity of the sender, she abruptly discontinued our correspondence. It is common knowledge in China that agents register e-mail accounts on clients' behalf and control all communications.
Agents have earned a bad reputation among some people in American higher education—but what of the reputation of American admissions officials in the eyes of Chinese agents? I once attended a lecture in which an agent mocked the recruiting methods of some universities in the Chinese market. Those Americans are seen as culturally inept and unwilling to provide substantive oversight, even though they tout the integrity of their systems.
"You've got [American] schools admitting people quite literally to graduate schools who only have a high-school diploma, because they misunderstood what the credential represented. And you have people with degrees who are being rejected because they don't understand that their degree is in fact comparable to a U.S. bachelor's degree," said Dale Gough, director of International Education Services at the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.
Gough said that the majority of U.S. institutions do not have the training or resources to evaluate foreign credentials, and that standards vary greatly among independent providers. The best option perhaps is the China Academic Degrees and Graduate Education Development Center, which recently signed cooperative agreements with both the registrars' association and EducationUSA.
I do not believe the use of agents, or the amount of fraud, will decrease until colleges are prepared to do their due diligence. Moreover, foreign students deserve the dignity of a professional assessment of their credentials, especially when colleges accept application fees.
If colleges truly care about their international students, they should ask them what aspects of the application process seemed unreasonable or so daunting that they felt obliged to turn to a third party. Then enlist them in the fight against fraud and wasteful spending on agents by giving advice to prospective students. Colleges could even employ them to vet applicants over the phone in their native language, as the University of Virginia does.
After all, students, too, have a stake in the reputations of their universities, as well as of their own countries. And their parents would rather not have to pay those exorbitant fees.
Tim Hathaway is curriculum coordinator for advanced communicative skills at the School of Foreign Languages at Renmin University of China.