After years of falling international student enrollment, the University of Kansas has been forced to rethink its goals when it comes to recruiting students around the world. In 2014, the University signed a contract that could have been worth millions — it didn’t work out.
The University agreed in 2014 to become one of two college partners in the United States with Shorelight Education, a Boston-based recruitment agency that connects international students with American universities. The University hoped to double its international enrollment.
The Kansan obtained an unredacted version of the Shorelight contract after a complaint was filed to the Kansas Attorney General’s Office in October 2018. The Kansan originally requested a copy from the University through an open records request, but the version obtained redacted information about how much money is exchanged between the company and the University.
The unredacted version of the contract states Shorelight would be paid $2 million a year through the partnership to recruit hundreds of international students annually. However, since the number of students being recruited is so low, the partnership is not meeting its original projections.
Total international enrollment at the University of Kansas has fallen approximately 14% since fall 2015, according to data provided by International Support Services.
“Given the international recruitment market nationally, the original projections are no longer realistic,” Charles Bankart, vice provost for international affairs, said in an October 2018 email to the Kansan.
The entities agreed on an enrollment “limit,” or max capacity of 2,650 new international students by the 2018-19 school year. No minimums were set, according to the University’s contract with Shorelight.
“The partnership — when it has sufficient students would pay [Shorelight] $2 million. This would be revenue paid to the partnership by matriculates students above and beyond what KU charges the partnership for full tuition, fees, housing, dining,” Bankart said to Interim Provost Carl Lejuez. “It [requires] students in large numbers so that economies of scale are achieved. Until that point, the partnership is only able to pay KU's full costs and the costs of the staff running the program. It is not true that KU would ever pay [Shorelight]. It really is the partnership entity.”
This information was shared with the Kansan in a text message from Lejuez.
The University made the agreement to “attract, recruit and retain qualified international students in order to enhance its reputation, to expand the diversity of its student population and to further its commitment to provide competitive programs that support interdisciplinary inquiry, intellectual development, knowledge and skill acquisition, and student success through a diverse, fully-engaged, learner-centered campus environment,” according to the contract between the University and Shorelight, which the Kansan obtained in October 2018.
Nationally, colleges have grappled with how to recruit international students. Institutions across the country continue to report dropping enrollment numbers, the Kansan reported in October.
The Kansan previously reported the University hoped to use the extra money that international students bring to the university to fund ambitious building plans. It went ahead and used the money to pay for buildings such as the Integrated Science Building, but then international enrollment actually fell.
How it works
Shorelight recruited 560 students from 2014 to 2018, according to data in a report by the University Senate’s international affairs committee. According to the terms of the contract, if the recruitment agency had met the extended limit, the University could have raked in upwards of $20 million in revenue — in addition to the higher tuition international students pay.
A Kansan analysis found that the University banked heavily on an increase in international students to fund its ambitious building plans.
The University and Shorelight jointly managed a separate limited liability company, known as KAAP, Bankart said. Shorelight receives program payments through KAAP from students who participate in the University’s Academic Accelerator Program.
Each three-credit-hour class taught by the University’s Applied English Center and taken by a Shorelight recruit nets the University $6,650. Additionally, any three-credit-hour class taught outside the AEC pays the University $7,500, according to the Shorelight contract. The University also gets a stipend of $1,000 per student per year, in addition to required fees, international fees and student housing fees — also covered by Shorelight.
Assuming a Shorelight recruit took a full 12-hour course load, with three regular courses and one course taught by the AEC, that recruit could be as valuable as $31,000 to the University before accounting for international student tuition — which runs between $40,000 and $44,000 per year.
The partnership started out strong, Bankart said in a November 2019 interview with the Kansan, but the University didn’t have a diverse class of international students coming in. Most international students that came to the University were from China.
In fall 2016, international enrollment started declining, Bankart said. Both students recruited directly by the University and by Shorelight decreased.
An array of global issues were affecting international enrollment rates. And Shorelight was gaining more university partners as well.
The University's new goals
University Senate’s international affairs committee compared international enrollment at institutions similar to the University. The committee was asked to study it by others in University governance. The committee asked universities both with and without the assistance of companies for information on their international recruits.
“With all the fluctuation in this so-called market, so many external factors coming into it and determining international enrollment at universities, what we realized that having a very strong and very efficient and effective direct recruitment system is the best if KU was to have a pretty good international student population,” said Kapila Silva, the 2018 chair of the University Senate international affairs committee and the lead author of the report. “One of the things is that it’s not only the number — it’s also the diversity of the student body.”
The original 2014 Shorelight partnership goal to double the number of international students was found to be unrealistic, according to the report.
In January 2019, the University aimed for Shorelight to recruit around 250 students each year, according to the report. Silva said this new goal was more realistic.
More behind the contract
In 2012, the University worked with Huron, a consulting company, to help review its administrative processes. It compiled the results in a report called Changing for Excellence.
One of the recommendations was for the University to recruit more international students, Bankart said. At the time, the University had around 2,000 international students. It didn’t have an office for international students or a significant budget for international affairs in 2012.
According to a July 2014 news release from Huron, the company is a partner with Shorelight.
“We wanted to find well-qualified students who would be served well by KU and our academic programs, not just find students who may or may not succeed,” Bankart said. “Shorelight was an organization that was less about their own brand identity ... and more about creating a space for institutions to be represented abroad.”
And after international enrollment started declining nationwide, Shorelight started getting more creative with the students it was recruiting, Bankart said. Rather than specifically pulling students from a small number of countries, Shorelight recruited a more diverse class of students. Currently, there are students from 109 countries outside of the United States at the University, according to data from the University’s Office of Analytics & Institutional Research.
“While contracts can be easily scrutinized, building an infrastructure can be incredibly expensive also. I think there are good reasons to support internal structures that are able to do this, and sometimes there are good reasons to develop partners,” Lejuez said. “There are always good and bad decisions, but it isn’t the case that every contract or time that we outsource is a bad decision.”
Former Kansan reporters Conner Mitchell and Lara Korte contributed to this report.