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Colleges Hire Firms To Court Foreign Students

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Public universities want to enroll more international students. Foreigners bring diversity and revenue with their full fare tuition fees. The problem is state universities don't have the budgets to recruit on their own. New Hampshire Public Radio reporter Sheryl Rich-Kern explains that some colleges are hiring for-profit companies to do recruiting for them.

SHERYL RICH-KERN: It's mid-day at the University of Massachusetts campus in Lowell, an urban school in the heart of a historic mill town close to Boston. Nine out of ten of the 14,000 undergrads here come from within the state. The university is on a mission to lure more students from beyond Massachusetts and especially beyond U.S. borders.

Mr. JESMITH LOPES (Student, University of Massachusetts Lowell): I'm Jesmith Lopes from Bombay, India. I'm 18 years old.

Unidentified Man: What we're going to do is not reassemble...

RICH-KERN: Lopes takes a calculus class thousands of miles from home.

Mr. LOPES: If you have a higher degree from United States, it's a great achievement.

RICH-KERN: That's what Lopes told his guidance counselor in India. And that's when he heard about Navitas and its classes that help foreign students transition to an American university.

Ahmed Abdelal is the provost at UMass-Lowell. He says students pay Navitas the full, out-of-state tuition. The university provides classroom facilities.

Provost AHMED ABDELAL (University of Massachusetts Lowell): And then they compensate us for those services.

RICH-KERN: Navitas passes along about 30 percent of tuition to UMass. But when students matriculate, they pay full tuition to the university. Barmak Nassirian is with the American Association of Collegiate Registrars. Nassirian says the use of commissioned agents raises questions about the practices that get one student in over another.

Mr. BARMAK NASSIRIAN (American Association of Collegiate Registrars): Some of these arrangements with the for-profits don't just stop with the presentation of pre-screened applicants for the university to pick from. But in some instances, there are actual academic functions being performed. You have to wonder, which is the dog and which is the tail?

RICH-KERN: Again, Provost Abdelal.

Provost ABDELAL: I think there is zero risk. Why do I say that? Because we are in charge.

RICH-KERN: The UMass-Lowell provost says universities have to think globally to survive. But they need resources.

Provost ABDELAL: The contribution of the state to the UMass-Lowell budget has steadily decreased. At this point of time, it is 21 percent of our budget. It used to be, 70 or 80 percent.

RICH-KERN: The University of New Hampshire is about an hour north of Lowell. Its pastoral campus couldn't be more different. But the budgetary constraints are similar. UNH is launching its own Navitas program in the spring. Lisa MacFarlane is the university provost. MacFarlane says that with the number of U.S. secondary students on the decline, the timing is right.

Provost LISA MACFARLANE (University of New Hampshire): It's very expensive to recruit students internationally from your own home campus. There is no way that we would ever have the money, the time, the expertise, to be able to identify qualified students in all of those areas of the world.

RICH-KERN: A decade ago, admissions counselors would have scoffed at hiring recruiters whose primary motive was profit. But that was before the recession and dramatic cuts in state and federal funding.

For NPR News, this is Sheryl Rich-Kern.

(Soundbite of music)

WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sheryl Rich-Kern has been contributing stories for NHPR since 2006, covering education, social services, business, health care and an occasional quirky yarn that epitomizes life in New Hampshire. Sherylâââ