When Martin Meehan, chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Lowell, decided he wanted more foreign students, he sent deans and professors fanning across Asia, and even went to China himself to sign exchange partnerships with two prominent universities. But with just 3 percent of its students from abroad, UMass Lowell wants to do more.
“You can’t prepare students for a global society if almost everyone they interact with is from Massachusetts,’’ Meehan said.
So UMass Lowell, along with sister campuses in Boston and Dartmouth, sought outside help. Last year, the schools hired an Australian company called Navitas. It recruits bright but underprepared students around the world and shepherds them through their first year of higher education by teaching basics their new classmates already know, from the finer points of English to when to use slang and how to shake hands.
The company has delivered 166 students to the UMass campuses so far - including students from Vietnam, Russia, and India - and more are on the way.
Navitas and other “pathway programs’’ have won fans among college administrators trying to globalize their operations on tight budgets. The pathway programs boast recruitment expertise most schools could never hope to develop in-house. They bring in students who diversify campus culture and who, crucially, pay out-of-state tuition and typically require little financial aid.
But colleges that contract with private recruiters risk wading into ethically tricky waters. They cannot help but surrender some oversight, said Jim Miller, director of international initiatives for the National Association for College Admission Counseling. “We don’t pretend that universities are fully able to control what a corporation in Australia or any other country does,’’ he said.
Navitas works on commission. Universities invite the program to set up an on-campus office, which then reaches out to hundreds of recruiters worldwide - some full-time employees, some independent contractors - who find promising students and help them apply. Students who are accepted take extra English and culture classes in addition to the standard freshman curriculum.
They pay the same out-of-state tuition to the university as their American classmates. But Navitas takes a cut, receiving from the university half of the $23,736 that out-of-state freshmen pay in tuition and fees.
Critics say this last step can create an incentive to pursue students who might not be up to the rigors of their new university. Miller’s association is considering whether to prohibit member universities from hiring recruiters paid on a per-head basis, including Navitas.
“We believe that when students talk to recruiters, the conversation should be about what’s best for the students,’’ Miller said. “If you put a price tag on a kid’s head, that conversation may not keep his best interest in the same regard.’’
Under US law, colleges are prohibited from using private recruiters domestically, and while their use abroad is legal, State Department officials have said that they frown on it. Some recruiters, though none at Navitas, have been exposed for ghostwriting essays and submitting applications to American schools in exchange for fees so high they might as well be bribes.
Navitas forbids its recruiters from accepting money from prospective students. Its officials say the company’s reputation rests on ensuring its recruits succeed.
“There are already very, very strong restrictions on what our agents can and can’t do,’’ said Patrick Van Rooyen, , who oversees Navitas’s US operations. “We don’t have anything to hide.’’
American universities have long sought to boost foreign enrollment. The economic crisis intensified the push.
“We’ve had our state appropriation cut by 26 percent in the last three years,’’ Meehan said. “We have to develop programs and recruiting in a way that provides the revenue that we need.’’
Many schools have forged partnerships with other colleges abroad, allowing foreign students to spend a first year in their home countries and transfer to the United States after intensive prep work in a joint curriculum.
This traditional model boosts the prestige of both parties, said Bob Lammey, who works on international issues as a higher education consultant at High Street Partners.
“The US school gets some comfort that students are being taught up to its standards,’’ he said. “Meanwhile, for the other school, having any kind of US university attached to theirs is great for their reputation.’’
Pathway programs run by private companies offer different benefits.
“We capture the students who otherwise would miss out on the opportunity for a US education,’’ Van Rooyen said. “That opens up an enormous pool, including the students who are blowing the roof off with their scores in math and science but can barely write in English.’’
Pathway programs are widespread outside the United States - Navitas alone funnels 17,000 students annually into universities around the world - but are a new phenomenon in North America. Navitas, founded in Australia in 1994, started the first pathway program on the continent in 2006, at Simon Fraser University in Canada. It did not enter the US market until 2009, when company officials realized the recession had opened a niche at schools struggling with budget cuts.
University of New Hampshire, and one at Western Kentucky University. The universities expect the program to expand dramatically in the next few years.
“The results are good so far, though it has taken us a little time to get going,’’ said UMass Boston provost Winston Langley. “The next two years offer to be even more promising.’’
Van Rooyen said Navitas hopes to quadruple by next September the number of students it places at the five US campuses where it has offices.
It would like to have as many as 500 students at UMass Lowell by 2015, more than an eightfold increase, though still not enough to get the school’s number of foreign students to 10 percent of its current 15,000 students, Meehan’s goal.
Only half the Navitas students at Umass Lowell are undergraduates. The others are in a pre-masters’ degree program. Some said they were not surprised to be approached by private agents hoping they would enroll. That is how recruitment in their countries usually works.
The students mostly share a curriculum with their American classmates and are taught largely by UMass faculty, though Navitas staff members also coach them.
“They’re doing everything any other student does, but over a longer period of time with more mentoring and nurturing,’’ Van Rooyen said.
They are faring well academically, with GPAs in the 3.1 range, though they have had growing pains. Many are encountering literature reviews and research projects for the first time.
Recently, one class had a problem with plagiarism, namely, the students didn’t know not to plagiarize.
“They were copying chunks word for word,’’ said Sumudu Lewis, a UMass professor who set them straight. “That was what their teachers had expected back home.’’
Most of their social life thus far consists of bonding with one another.
“We have only one [non-Navitas] class per week, and mine has just six students,’’ said Titiksha Fernandes, a first-year master’s student from India. “So there’s not much interaction as of yet with the Americans.’’
But that may soon change, said Russian classmate Irina Kovaleva.
“American culture is very different from our own cultures,’’ she said. “The environment is different… . It can be a little difficult. But it is getting easier.’’