This fall, the University of Vermont will for the first time welcome a class of graduate students selected with the help of a for-profit international student recruiting company.
The university has worked with Study Group since early 2013, which has looked for undergraduates for UVM to take programs run by Study Group staff but taught by UVM faculty. They become full students when they pass the pre-entry programs, offered in one, two or three semesters. The first class of undergraduates will get a diploma in May 2017.
Programs of this type are being closely watched by higher education policy groups, who say some universities are straddling the line between offering a gateway to a good education and a backdoor to schools that treat international students, who often must pay full price, as commodities.
Recruiting international students is a fast-growing trend in American higher education. As some revenue sources for colleges wither, such as state appropriations, industry observers say that as many as 37 percent of all universities in the United States are now working with international recruiters. These agencies take a cut of the students’ tuition money as commission.
Recruiting students for profit is illegal domestically, but since international students don’t have access to federal financial aid, they aren’t covered by the law.
Final say on virtually everything Study Group does rests with UVM officials. However, language in the contract between the two entities appears to require that UVM make quick yes or no admissions decisions for students coming through Study Group run programs — one business week for graduate students, and three business days for undergraduates — though officials at UVM say they treat this as a guideline, not a mandate.
UVM says that their Pathway program is unique — students are held to the same academic standards as every other UVM student and they live in the same residence halls, unlike other schools who house international students with each other, away from the main population.
An international contract of mystery
Much of the contract between Study Group and UVM, obtained by the Burlington Free Press, is redacted.
The contract specifies that Study Group gets a cut of tuition for every student who is admitted to the program, but both how much a student pays in tuition and how much Study Group takes from that student is blacked out. Target enrollments, GPA and English aptitude test score thresholds and bulleted lists of student services, pages upon pages of them, that Study Group would provide — all are redacted.
Some officials say that a handful of redactions were made in error. GPA and test score thresholds shouldn’t have been redacted, according to Cindy Forehand, dean of the graduate college at UVM and Jeff Wakefield, assistant director of communications. All of that information is available on a UVM website detailing the programs, they noted.
For the first class of pre-master’s students, admissions counselors at UVM haven’t accepted anyone within the five-day limit noted in the contract, Forehand said.
Molly Witt, assistant director of international admissions at UVM, said the limit is a way to make sure UVM is able to compete for these students.
“A lot of it came as a result of trying to make sure we have an edge out in the world,” she said. “These students are in an incredibly competitive marketplace.”
All the redactions on the contract are legal because of an exemption for trade secrets under Vermont’s public records law, said Gary Derr, vice president for executive operations at UVM. Inside Higher Ed, a news website covering American higher education reported in 2014 that similar contracts with universities all over the country redact under the same type of trade secret exemption.
In one case, a newspaper appealed redactions to the University of Kansas’ contract with Shorelight, a Study Group competitor. The company told a Kansas judge that the contract had information that would open the door for other companies to copy its business. With that argument, the judge allowed the redactions to stay.
“The secrecy about this kind of activity is not, in our view, in keeping with ideal and healthy recruitment.” said Eddie West, director of international initiatives at the National Association for College Admission Counseling. The organization regularly publishes reports on trends in the college recruiting industry, pushes policy suggestions to lawmakers and creates best practices.
West said that while there are legitimate business reasons for the secrecy, it’s still alarming.
“The students are the ones that we’re most concerned about,” he said “The truth of the matter is that they are in many cases completely unaware of these commercial arrangements.”
A growing trend in the international recruitment business, West said, is that companies like Study Group or Kaplan will act like brokers instead of recruiters. They pay agencies in China and India — West called them “subcontractors” — to pose as representatives of a university to prospective students. Recruiters stand to earn money based on their ability to bring a student to an American school.
Any subcontractor that Study Group hires needs to be approved by UVM, according to the contract.
“From a transparency perspective, Vermont will say they’re working with Study Group and that’s transparent, but there’s no transparency about who Study Group is working with,” he said.
Study Group’s UVM program does sometimes use subcontractors, according to Witt, but they haven’t heard of any misrepresentation.
“If that were to come across our desks we would take swift action,” Witt said.
UVM’s program is ‘unique’, officials say
“Our standards are just a little bit higher than everyone else’s,” said Cynthia Forehand, dean of the graduate college at UVM. “We have Study Group support, but UVM faculty teach every course. Study Group staff are just managers.”
Forehand, Witt and Gayle Nunley, associate provost for faculty affairs and internationalization and a professor of Spanish at UVM, who was a driving force behind the program, all say that the academics are top notch and that everyone — international or not — is held to the same standard.
UVM was careful not to repeat the mistakes of other schools with pathway programs. English proficiency tests are administered when students arrive and checked against application materials to screen against cheating. To encourage integration, international students live in one of three residence halls, with no more than 50 percent international students.
“Students who study at UVM with us should feel part of UVM,” Nunley said. “From they day they arrive to they day they graduate there should be no sense, real or perceived, that they are somehow separate or second class.”