By STEPHANIE SAUL
APRIL 19, 2016
BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — “Hurry Up!!!,” the online posting said. “Spot Admissions” to Western Kentucky University. Scholarships of up to $17,000 were available, it added. “Letter in one day.” The offer, by a college recruiter based in India, was part of a campaign so enticing that more than 300 students swiftly applied to a college that many had probably never heard of.
More than 8,000 miles away, at Western Kentucky, professors were taken by surprise when they learned last fall of the aggressive recruitment effort, sponsored by their international enrollment office. Word began to spread here on campus that a potential flood of graduate students would arrive in the spring 2016 semester.
The problem — or one of them — was that many of the students did not meet the university’s standards, faculty members said, and administrators acknowledged.
Western Kentucky’s deal with the recruiting company, Global Tree Overseas Education Consultants, is a type of arrangement that is becoming more common as a thriving international educational consultancy industry casts a wide net in India and other countries, luring international students to United States colleges struggling to fill seats. The university agreed to pay Global Tree a commission of 15 percent of the first year’s tuition of students who enrolled, or about $2,000 per student.
But as colleges increasingly rely on these international recruiters, educators worry that students may be victimized by high-pressure sales tactics, and that universities are trading away academic standards by recruiting less qualified students who pay higher tuition.
“There are some incentives for not delivering complete clunkers, but the underlying motivation for both the university and the agent is to get warm bodies in the door,” said Philip G. Altbach, the founding director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College.
At Western Kentucky, 106 of 132 students admitted through the recruitment effort scored below the university’s requirement on an English skills test, according to a resolution adopted last fall by the graduate faculty council, which raised questions about the program. “The vast majority either didn’t have any scores or there wasn’t documentation of their language skills,” said Barbara Burch, a faculty member of the university’s Board of Regents.
The university senate and the student government association also expressed concerns. “It is ethically wrong to bring students to the university and let them believe they can be successful when we have nothing in place to make sure they’re successful,” the student association president, Jay Todd Richey, said.
With about 1,400 international students and a little more than 20,000 students over all, Western Kentucky, the state’s third largest public university, has been at the forefront of efforts by universities across the country to increase foreign enrollment. Its slogan is “A leading American university with international reach.”
Administrators say the India Pilot Project, as the recruitment effort is known here, is an experiment to increase enrollment and to diversify the international student body, and fits in with a previously announced plan to double international enrollment.
They also say the students — 57 of whom enrolled in January — were admitted conditionally and have been placed in remedial classes to help them adjust.
“International is good, but it’s not always easy,” Dr. Gary Ransdell, the university’s president, said in an interview. “It can’t be business as usual. We’re learning that. There are growing pains.”
Global Tree’s director, Subhakar Alapati, also acknowledged that the program had glitches, saying in a telephone interview, “A problem with the students has arisen because the education system in India is more theoretical than practical.”
Dr. Ransdell said the university decided to recruit international students years ago to expose local students to global cultures. But recently, he said, the effort has become more of an economic necessity, partly because of drastic state funding cuts for higher education — a pattern seen across the country.
To combat these cuts, colleges began to look at foreign students, who pay full tuition, as their financial salvation. And although federal law prohibits them from using recruiters in the United States who are paid based on the number of students they enroll, the law does not ban the use of such recruiters abroad.
Concerned about the potential for recruiting abuses, the National Association for College Admission Counseling, or Nacac, put out a draft policy in 2011 imposing a similar ban abroad.
“The use of agents who are compensated in the form of bonus, commission or other incentive payment on the basis of the number of students recruited or enrolled creates an environment in which misrepresentation and conflicts of interests are unavoidable,” the draft said.
But the organization never imposed the policy because of pressure from its members. Since that decision in 2013, the use of international recruiters has increased, said Eddie West, the director of international initiatives for the organization. “Anecdotally and through surveys, we can tell there’s been an uptick in that type of recruitment,” Mr. West said.
A major criticism of the recruiters is that their sales tactics can pressure students by creating a sense of urgency.
Other international recruiting companies are also offering so-called “spot admission” or “spot assessment” to a variety of United States universities. One is Study Metro, in Bangalore, India, which posted notices on Facebook offering quick admission, seemingly to the University of Oklahoma, along with fast turnarounds on a document called the I-20, required to obtain a visa.
“Dear Students, Study Metro invites you with open arms to make avail of the spot admission and I20 program on 31st Jan 2016,” it adds. “Don’t miss the opportunity to fulfill your aspiring dream of studying in USA. Call now for FREE registration. First comes First served.”
Abhishek Bajaj, the managing director of Study Metro, said his company’s reference to the University of Oklahoma was an error. Its client, he said, is the University of Central Oklahoma.
He defended the urgent tone of the posting, saying that university representatives were in his office that day. “The urgency is to tell them this is a golden opportunity to meet,” Mr. Bajaj said.
Global Tree, the company working with Western Kentucky, also recently offered on Facebook “spot assessment” to “world top” Purdue University, with a notice saying, “Low Scores, Don’t Worry.” The smaller print reveals that the ad is for Purdue University Calumet, in Hammond, Ind., about 100 miles from the flagship campus in West Lafayette.
After being notified about the Facebook posting, a spokesman for Purdue Calumet said the university was reviewing its relationship with Global Tree, calling the message “unfortunate and disconcerting.”
“We do not lower the requirements for our international students,” the spokesman, Wes Lukoshus, said.
Global Tree’s director, Mr. Alapati, said in the telephone interview that Purdue Calumet had approved its marketing materials in advance.
Recruiting students who are not qualified or encouraging students to attend campuses that are not the right fit could undermine the perceived value of being educated in the United States, said Dale Gough, the international education services director for the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.
“The families are going to pay to have their students flown here, but they’re going to flunk out because they don’t have the academic preparation, and then go home,” Mr. Gough said. “That’s not good.”
The State Department and its program EducationUSA, which promotes international study in the United States, also, because of potential conflicts, prohibit arrangements with recruiters paid based on student enrollment, as it explains in a statement on the EducationUSA website.
Mr. Alapati said that Global Tree had dealt with Western Kentucky for years, but that the recent India project was the first time the university had sent its own employees “on site in India doing evaluations on the spot.” The idea of “spot admission” was to eliminate long waiting times, he said.
He recently visited Western Kentucky’s computer science department, where most of the students enrolled. A professor told him that the students’ knowledge was below that of second-year undergraduates. “The dean said the department is going to give extra help,” Mr. Alapati said.
Dr. Eric S. Reed, the interim dean of the graduate school, said that nearly all the conditionally admitted students were required to take language remediation classes, and that some were required to take “deficiency” classes to teach them a necessary skill.
In addition to recruiting international students, Western Kentucky has promoted programs for studying abroad, received federal money for a Chinese-language flagship program, and become host to a Confucius Institute financed by Hanban, a Chinese government agency.
One of the newer buildings on campus is the Honors College/International Center, a three-story, $22 million structure that houses the university’s 17-member international staff.
A large bronze globe dominates the atrium-style lobby. Underneath the globe, the woodwork is etched with the phrase “Gateway to the World.”
“The university is always striving to diversify our international population,” said Raza Tiwana, the school’s chief international officer, who first arrived on campus as a student from Pakistan.
James Gary, the computer science chairman, said his department approved the students admitted this spring. “From my perspective, it has not been a disaster,” Dr. Gary said. But he acknowledged concerns about whether some of them can be successful.
“We really won’t be able to tell anything about that until the end of the semester,” he said.