In India, a Student-Recruiting Industry Ups the Ante for U.S. Colleges

Home News In India, a Student-Recruiting Industry Ups the Ante for U.S. Colleges

The top choice for many students is the United States...

By Karin Fischer

In a leafy residential neighborhood of India's capital, test-preparation companies' signs tacked on light poles promise help in getting into American colleges. Your passport to a secure future!

In a downtown commercial district, overseas-admissions counselors advertise their expertise with floor-to-ceiling posters in the lobbies of high-rise office towers. A better tomorrow for a generation of today!

In small offices over a local McDonald's, on the backs of taxis, on central thoroughfares, agents, advisers, and college recruiters ply their services.

Study in Australia! Master your test! Foreign education, delivered!

If American students think they have a hard time navigating the route to college, they should be thankful they're not in India.

This cacophony of sales pitches reflects a distinctly modern phenomenon. India, like many emerging economies, has a growing middle class. And many in this increasingly well-heeled group intend to use their money to purchase an overseas education for their children.

At first glance, this new market might be considered a boon to American colleges. The United States has been the favored destination of international students for decades: American colleges are far ahead of their foreign competitors in skimming the cream of the crop abroad, particularly to populate top graduate programs.

But India has become a mass market for a different kind of student: undergraduates. They are far less informed than older students about where to study. And while the United States remains a top choice, they are more likely to consider places like Canada, Australia, Britain—even Singapore—for their degrees.

Combine that attitude with competition that is more coordinated—and aggressive—than ever, and American colleges are discovering just how hard it is to stand out in the crowd.

"The old Field of Dreams model of international recruiting is out of sync with reality," says Mark E. Hallett, director of international programs at Colorado State University at Fort Collins. "The days of the 'If you build it, they will come' mentality are over."

A Shortage of Seats

Shaded by a forest of glass-clad office towers, the Shri Ram School, in the suburb of Gurgaon, is one of rankings-crazed India's top private high schools. The parents of many of the students here work for the multinational firms with headquarters in the glossy high-rises nearby.

Ten years ago, most Shri Ram students would have happily gone on to study at the University of Delhi or one of the elite Indian Institutes of Technology. But no longer.

India's overburdened higher-education system simply cannot meet the crushing demand for places. Some 220 million Indian children are enrolled in elementary and secondary schools, but its 400 universities can accommodate fewer than 10 million students, just 12 percent of the college-age population. At the same time, the country's education minister is pressing to increase the college-going rate to 30 percent within the next 10 years, but efforts to expand capacity are moving slowly.

As a result, even Shri Ram's best students can find it difficult to secure a place in the institution or courses of their choice. In the spring of 2008, for example, a record 320,000 students took the entrance examination for just 8,000 spots at the country's 13 Indian Institutes of Technology.

Komal Sood, the school's principal, says one of Shri Ram's students, a "topper," earned a 97 percent on the high-school exit test yet was not accepted into the course he wanted. "There is a problem with our system," she says.

Five years ago, Shri Ram began offering the International Baccalaureate program for the growing number of students who wanted to study overseas. These days, about one-quarter of the IB students do just that.

The top choice for many students is the United States.

Tarini Sundar, an effervescent 17-year-old, says she has long planned to study in the United States, encouraged by her cousins, who live outside Washington. She visited Columbia, Duke, and New York Universities this past summer, but she would prefer to attend the University of Pennsylvania to study economics.

"I'm hoping and praying to get in," she says, clasping her hands and casting her eyes skyward for effect.

Ms. Sundar is typical of the foreign students that American colleges have traditionally attracted: well off, well traveled, and knowledgeable about the United States. And certainly, representatives of American colleges parade regularly through the gates of Shri Ram's campus for one-on-one consultations.

Yet the students' interest in the United States is not as steadfast as that of their parents' generation. And their parents may now be less interested still.

Many would prefer their children to study in Australia or Singapore "because they're closer to home and because they feel it is too liberal in America," says Manisha Malhotra, the IB coordinator, as she emerges from a coaching session for the next day's SAT II exam.

And while American colleges are eager to tap this market, their name-brand recognition in the United States doesn't always translate halfway around the world.

"Mount Holyoke, we have had students go there," says Jyoti Bose, director of the Springdales School, another Delhi-area school, reciting a list of 27 American colleges whose officials visited the campus a day earlier. "Tufts, Penn State, George Washington, Bucknell, DePauw—where are some of these schools?"

Not a Name Brand

The tidy blue-on-white lettering atop Meghan J. Pace's booth reads "Angelo State University."

Yet, not for the first time during this college-recruitment fair, Ms. Pace, an energetic redhead who is her university's international-student-services counselor, is advising a student about a college other than her own.

"You want to talk to Colorado State," says Ms. Pace, pointing toward her colleague, Mr. Hallett, who is surrounded by a scrum of students four deep. "They have a graduate degree in engineering."

The young woman moves on to join the group of students and parents pooling around the booth for Colorado State. It is the only one of 16 colleges represented at the one-day fair, sponsored by the United States-India Educational Foundation, or Usief, that offers the sought-after degree.

Mr. Hallett is fielding a barrage of queries, straining to speak over the whir of fans chopping at the heavy, humid air. He and the other college representatives, along with an estimated 300 students and their parents, are here on the verdant grounds of an upscale neighborhood of diplomatic offices and exclusive hotels. It is where Usief, a U.S. government-supported association that promotes American higher education, has its main New Delhi office.

Across the way, inside a large tent erected for the event, Jay Lokken, director of international education at the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse, is trying to describe Wisconsin to Sourabh Tanwar, a gangly 17-year-old with dreams of studying information technology in California or New York.

"You don't have the distractions of a big city" in Wisconsin, he offers.

Nearby, Nithyanantha J. Sevanthinathan, director of international programs for the Lone Star College system, tries to be sanguine even though few of the students at the fair are interested in, or even familiar with, community colleges. He finds himself repeatedly explaining that no, his five-campus college does not offer graduate degrees.

"I'm doing a lot of educating," says Mr. Sevanthinathan, who is on his first recruiting trip to India. "Even if they're not going to come to my college, at least they'll understand a bit better about American higher education."

He pauses. "I'm going to have to strategize about other ways to meet the right students."

By the end of the day, Mr. Hallett can barely speak, his voice raw from more than three hours of nonstop talking. Others among his counterparts—looking for art students among a sea of engineers, or undergraduates instead of prospective Ph.D.'s—say they count the day a success if they come away with one or two solid leads.

Gathering to dissect the fair at a hotel near the foundation's compound, several recruiters speak of their uncertainty about how their midlevel institutions, with virtually no name recognition in India, can best get into the market.

Working with organizations like Usief, which offers students general advice about studying in the United States, is helpful, they agree. But it's not enough to get them the access they want to undergraduates, nor the continuing relationships they need to seal the deal.

They need to build new pipelines of students, they say, but despair of doing such labor-intensive recruiting from half a world away.

The challenge, Ms. Pace of Angelo State says, is finding the student who will be the right fit for her West Texas institution.

"I'm not looking to bring in numbers, numbers, numbers," says Ms. Pace, who is the university's sole international-student recruiter. "I just want to bring five quality students from India who are right for my school."

Ms. Pace says she is intrigued by the approach used by Mr. Lokken, the recruiter from the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse, who has built up a network of independent agents, in India and elsewhere, who find students and funnel them to his campus.

As a result, Mr. Lokken says, La Crosse's international-student numbers have more than tripled over the past five years, to more than 500 students.

"We felt like we couldn't afford not to invest in this," he says.

A Commercial Enterprise

Mr. Lokken's approach would not strike universities in other countries as unusual. Although American colleges, by and large, have shied away from using agents, seeing them as unseemly and compensating them as inappropriate, many foreign institutions routinely pay for such services.

In India, agents number in the thousands and range from corporate behemoths like IDP Education, an Australian company that recruits one of every five foreign students to that country, to shady storefront operators who forge transcripts and submit ghostwritten essays for applicants with subpar English.

Some advisers regularly travel to campuses abroad and pride themselves on exhaustive matchmaking between students and specific academic programs. Others merely hand out photocopied sheets of international college rankings. Some charge colleges a commission, while others bill students for their services.

One of India's largest agencies is N&N Chopra Consultants, better known as "the Chopras," whose main New Delhi office is located in an office tower next to an auto-repair shop in one of the city's many commercial districts.

Its small waiting room is dominated by a large flat-panel television, across which images of smiling students and manicured campuses soundlessly flash. A whiteboard lists coming university visits: On the 25th, Sheffield Hallam University, in England. Representatives of Curtin University of Technology's Sydney campus on the 30th. The next day, Algonquin College, in Ottawa.

The reception area spills into an open room, encircled by desks. Students, often with parents or friends, perch anxiously in front of the largely female staff, whose murmured advice fills the room with a constant hum. Office assistants circulate with trays of water or milky tea.

Many of the Chopras' clients are high-school students, who often come armed with an overabundance of information about overseas education gleaned from the Internet but in need of guidance to sort through their options.

The counselors sometimes put the students through a battery of psychological tests to better understand what types of courses and institutions might suit them. They coach the students for entrance exams, review their essays, vet their visa applications, and brief them about adjusting to college life in a different country.

Students pay for individual services, such as courier costs, but the counseling itself is free, covered by the commissions the Chopras charge their university clients. That typically amounts to between 10 and 20 percent of first-year tuition and a smaller percentage of subsequent years'. (The agency does charge students applying to American colleges but does not make a profit on advising such students, says Naveen Chopra, the firm's co-director.)

Other students, particularly those seeking graduate degrees, know where and what they want to study but need advice on choosing among specific institutions or on financing their studies.

Cherian Joseph, a baby-faced counselor with a wispy beard, ushers one such student, Akshai Manchanda, into one of several small private chambers on the room's perimeter.

Mr. Manchanda is carrying a three-ring binder that bulges with transcripts, test results, and financial documents, all carefully sealed in individual plastic jackets. He wants to pursue a business degree in Australia but worries that he might not be able to after several of his father's business deals went sour.

Mr. Joseph pushes back a sliding door and beckons to a colleague, a specialist on studying in Britain, which offers less-expensive one-year graduate programs in business. She sits with Mr. Manchanda, volunteering several programs that meet his requirements.

After Mr. Manchanda leaves, Mr. Joseph says it only makes sense for students and their families to seek advice. Even solidly middle-class families, he notes, have probably been saving for their children's education for years and want to get it right. In fact, Indian families in general are considered to be quite cost-conscious when deciding where their children should study.

"We have to take into consideration," he says, "that it is the rest of their life."

Likewise, universities benefit because agents can vet applicants and ensure that they meet the institutions' standards, says Sandhya Nair, an assistant manager for the Chopras and head of counseling for American colleges.

"We send them quality applications," says Ms. Nair, an earnest, dark-eyed woman who acknowledges that she has never visited the United States. "It's not every Tom, Dick, and Harry applying. They're not going to get a pile of applications and have to immediately discard half."

Uneasy Relationships

Still, on an afternoon in which almost every chair is taken, Ms. Nair alone has almost an hour to spend chatting with a reporter.

That's because, although she estimates six out of 10 students who come through the Chopras' doors prefer to study in the United States, the firm has contracts with only a few American colleges. (It also does a steady business as India's provider of Kaplan test-prep services.)

Although many American colleges remain uneasy about the ethics of paying recruiters a commission to attract students, they are dealing with agents whether they like it or not. Most Indian students studying in the United States turn to independent counselors for help in admissions, almost everyone on the ground here agrees.

Ms. Pace, for one, says every Indian student at Angelo State reports having learned about the university through agents, even though Texas law prohibits her from contracting with third-party recruiters.

A pair of agents even slipped into the American college fair and circulated business cards among students and college recruiters, despite a U.S. State Department policy barring any college-advising programs it sponsors abroad from forming partnerships with commercial recruiting agents.

Such agreements are accepted practice for institutions in other countries. The approach has been adopted by relative newcomers to the market, like Canada and New Zealand, while the British Council, a governmet education agency, reversed its initial opposition to agents almost a decade ago, opting instead to more closely regulate their behavior.

The pioneer of working with commissioned counselors is Australia, which went from being a bit player in the international-student recruitment market to relying heavily on foreign students to fill university seats.

"India is a vast and complex country," says Kelly Raj, education counselor at the Australian High Commission in New Delhi, "and universities are really in need of assistance on the ground."

In fact, Australia's largest recruiter, IDP Education, is now making a play for American colleges.

It sent a group of 15 Indian employees to the United States for training and campus visits this past fall and announced its first dozen U.S. clients in December. Mementos of the trip, such as buttons saying "IDP—Now in the U.S.A.," decorate desks in the firm's Delhi offices, amid plush koala bears and posters of the Sydney harbor bridge.

Still, recent events—including an exposé on Australian television that said foreign students had been swindled by shady vocational institutions and recruiters—have led some to argue that the agent-based model in India is broken.

"Agents are not the future," says Henry Ledlie, who opened IDP Education's India office in 1994. "I've met a few agents that, by the time they finished shaking your hand, would have pulled off your wedding band."

Settling on a Strategy

To see the newest face of recruiting in India, visit the deceptively quiet Delhi offices of Middlesex University.

Beneath twin clocks that display the time in Delhi and at the university's home campus, in London, a dozen young women tap away on computer keyboards. They are busy processing applications, sifting through visa and accommodation requests, and scrutinizing financial documents.

Middlesex is one of dozens of foreign universities, mostly British, that have set up shop in India. Joe Victor, a dapper, mustachioed man who runs Middlesex's South Asia operations, opened one of the first regional offices of an overseas institution, Britain's University of Leeds, back in 1996.

Recently Australia's eight research-intensive universities announced plans to open a Delhi office.

Over a shared midday meal, Mr. Victor and his staff talk about the benefits of on-the-ground expertise. While other recruiters jet in and out, his office is a constant presence—a resource for his institution, as it tracks shifting enrollment trends, and for students and their parents.

Middlesex still relies on independent agents for recruiting assistance, but Mr. Victor says he is able to carefully evaluate and train them, breaking ties with those whose services are substandard and rewarding ones who do good work with larger fees and a marketing budget.

What's more, having an in-country office allows Middlesex to process applications on the spot, sometimes offering admission in as little as three hours. And a physical presence can help establish an institution as a known quantity, Mr. Victor maintains.

"People would rather go to someone they trust," he says. "It's a confidence builder."

The approach has paid off for Middlesex; offers of admission to students in India have more than doubled, to nearly 760, in the past two years.

Always Unpredictable

Such an investment may not make sense for American colleges, which are typically looking to draw far fewer students. But the bottom line, everyone seems to agree, is that in a brave new student-recruiting market, old methods are no longer enough.

The British Council last spring announced a partnership with the Economist Intelligence Unit to improve strategy for foreign-student recruitment through better forecasting of student mobility, while Ms. Raj of the Australian High Commission says her work has increasingly focused on doing more-sophisticated analyses and research on the Indian market.

Usief has recently begun offering students more personalized and extensive counseling services. Still, that kind of a unified approach may not be suited to a higher-education system as vast and decentralized as that of the United States. So change tends to happen on the institutional level.

Ms. Pace, of Angelo State, hopes to interest other Texas colleges in promoting the state as a welcoming place for foreign students. Her community-college colleague, Mr. Sevanthinathan, is seeking to build pipelines to feeder high schools. And Colorado State recently signed its first agent agreement, Mr. Hallett says.

Of course, what ends up working—what seals the deal for any given student—will always remain somewhat unpredictable.

Three months after meeting Mr. Lokken at the college fair, Sourabh Tanwar says that he has, in fact, reconsidered his plans to study at a big-city university and is going to apply to Wisconsin's La Crosse campus. His reasoning? Yes, academics are important. But what really got him excited was a random piece of information about the cost of living.

Did you know, he asks by e-mail, that a hamburger costs $5 in New York and Washington, but only $1 in Wisconsin?

"Living and shopping are also soo cheap there," he writes enthusiastically, "so why not study there?"

Karin Fischer [ ]

Wisconsin La Crosse campus, Middlesex University, Middlesex South Asia operations, Lone Star College system, American colleges, Shri Ram School Gurgaon, Study in Australia or Singapore, Colorado State University at Fort Collins

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