BY STEPHANIE SAUL, NEW YORK TIMES
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.”
An advertisement by Global Tree Overseas Education Consultants, a recruiting company.
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.”