KU partnering with private company to recruit international students

Kansas University is looking abroad for help stabilizing and diversifying its enrollment levels in the coming years. And for help increasing the number of international students, the university is turning to this country’s private sector.

The university has partnered with Cambridge, Mass., company Shorelight Education to recruit international students into KU’s new Academic Accelerator Program, or KUAAP. Administrators hope the new program will boost international student enrollment, but some faculty worry the program could dilute academic oversight by outsourcing tasks to a private company.

KUAAP will be a 12-month, three-semester program that combines courses from the College of Arts and Sciences, such as a program-specific course on the history and culture of Kansas, with auxiliary language instruction tailored to the content from the arts and sciences courses. The program is meant as an intensive first-year experience and an introduction to Kansas and U.S. culture and college curriculum.

For its part of the deal, Shorelight will find international students where they are around the world and recruit them to KU. It will also provide nonacademic services through the KU AAUP program. In return Shorelight will share tuition and fee revenue with KU from the accelerator program plus a small percentage of tuition when students progress through the university, said Sara Rosen, KU vice provost for academic affairs. Rosen would not say how much each party receives from the agreement and referred questions to Shorelight.

Shorelight co-founder and executive vice president Basil Cleveland said the primary goal is to help students be successful and get adjusted to college life in the country and on campus. “The number one obstacle we want to overcome is creating a class of international students that feel segregated.” That can include everything from showing them where the post office is and explaining American bank accounts to discussing local industries.

KU’s Applied English Center will provide language instruction for students in the KUAAP. The role of the KU AEC is to provide several levels of language instruction to students whose first language is not English. Center Director Mark Algren said the new program gives his team the chance “to develop something totally new.”

Rosen said she anticipates the new program will bring in 50 to 70 new recruits. Rosen hopes that number will jump to about 600 in two or three years, and possibly double in future years.

International student enrollment now stands at 2,200. Enrollment in the Applied English Center has increased from 612 in 2010 to 714 in 2013, and the center’s budget has more than doubled in that time, from about $1.5 million to more than $3 million.

Recruiting and marketing to students has typically been the job of KU’s admissions specialists, who travel to high schools around the country. Rosen said that can be hard for the university to do in other countries, so the university is trying to capitalize on Shorelight’s experience in places such as China, South Korea, the Middle East and Latin America.

Rosen said English proficiency for students recruited through Shorelight will need to be “pretty high” because they will be dropped into typical college coursework through KUAAP. However, some will be able to enter the university at lower learning levels and take courses through the AEC before starting the accelerator.

Some at KU are concerned that the university’s partnership with a private company will reduce faculty oversight of academic standards and could erode those standards. Mohamed El-Hodiri, a KU professor of economics, worries such partnerships will “turn the University of Kansas into another diploma mill.”

Because they pay non-resident tuition, students from other countries are “a profitable business for the university,” El-Hodiri said. He worries that partnering with a private company will limit faculty input over academics for those students and reduce overall accountability. “It cannot just be a deal done between two administrators,” he said.

Rosen said the university will retain full control over academics. Curriculum and academic decisions — things like language proficiency and other standards for students — will be made by a steering committee comprising both Shorelight representatives and KU administrators and faculty. The university will have the tie-breaking vote in all those decisions, giving administration ultimate control. Rosen added that the Higher Learning Commission approved the partnership in advance of the deal.

“It’s not a matter of letting them into an easier program to get the tuition money out of them,” she said.

However a measure of transparency is lost through the partnership. Because they involve a private company, committee meetings won’t be subject to open meetings laws as some university committee meetings would be.

The Journal-World filed an open records request with KU to get the university’s contract with Shorelight, but the company sought and won an injunction against releasing the contract in Douglas County District Court. In the court petition, Shorelight said the contract contained proprietary information. Because of the injunction, Rosen declined to comment on specifics about the revenue sharing agreement between KU and the company.

Shorelight CEO Tom Dretler said the contract contained details that could help other companies replicate their business model. “There are some things in the contract we believe show how what we’re doing with KU is particularly special,” he said.