Overseas college help proves costly for some UAE students

As increasing numbers of students from the UAE travel to the US to study, a cottage industry of 'college advisers' has sprung up promising to help them get into a university there.

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There is no shortage of 'experts' willing to advise students from the UAE who want to study abroad – for a price. But while many are genuine, some are only interested in lining their own pockets, writes Melanie Swan.

DUBAI // As increasing numbers of students from the UAE travel to the US to study, a cottage industry of “college advisers” has sprung up promising to help them get into a university there.

But while some are genuinely well-informed and connected, others are not and take thousands of dollars in exchange for bogus guarantees of places.

It is a growing market. In the 2010-2011 school year, 1,800 Emiratis left to study in the US, up from 1,200 a year earlier. The US Embassy processed about 5,200 student visas last year, up from about 2,500 in 2007.

Peter Davos, who lives in Dubai, started advising students voluntarily as a member of the alumni association of Johns Hopkins University in Maryland.

Over the years, it developed into a professional service, and he is now certified by University College Los Angeles.

He says he has seen too many students being “totally ill-advised” – a particular peril in the UAE as the cost of flying to America means many families do not visit the college, or even the state, before accepting a place there.

The result can be that Muslim students end up in out-of-town colleges in all-white, and in some cases Islamophobic, communities.

“These cultural considerations are really important,” said Mr Davos. “So many parents here are caught up with a name brand, sending their child to the right college for the prestige it brings them,

“But they don’t necessarily know it’s the right college for their child or the course they want to study.”

He charges by the hour for services such as essay revision, application assistance and in-depth coaching.

“I won’t guarantee admissions as, if that doesn’t happen, only my reputation suffers,” he said. “Education is a very emotional topic and parents want the best for their kids – that’s why it has to be ethical.”

When his company, Carian College Advisers, was launched two months ago, it became the first in the UAE to register with the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) in the US, a non-profit organisation that vets and certifies consultants.

The Washington headquarters has about 1,000 registered advisers across the US and abroad, including in Oman and Turkey.

“We have heard stories of families paying tens of thousands of dollars, even a million dollars, to an agent with a promise to get their child accepted at Harvard or Stanford,” said Mark Sklarow, the director of the IECA. “All such guarantees are fraudulent. It’s just not how the college application process works in the US.”

Families are often unaware of the difference between an independent consultant – who is working only on behalf of the potential student – and an agent, who will be working on behalf of an institution – usually a low-calibre college – rather than the family seeking help.

“Agents get paid very large sums only when they direct or convince a student to attend the handful of colleges they represent,” said Mr Sklarow. “The colleges with whom they have contracts are never top-tier schools.”

The economic crisis has added to the financial pressure on small colleges and universities to raise revenue. International students provide a lucrative market, as they can be charged fees much higher than their domestic counterparts.

Intelligent Partners offers university counselling to students in Dubai for study mainly in the UK, US and India. This year, between 10 and 15 students got into Ivy-League universities in the US after working with the organisation.

Approved by the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research and certified by bodies including the American International Recruitment Council, its founder, Sanjeev Verma, says there is a need for such services.

“Schools have counsellors and some have very good ones, but one or two is simply not enough. Applications are very labour-intensive.”

IP’s services do not come cheap. For two years of preparation, including help with finding institutions, CV writing and interview technique, parents can expect to pay around Dh13,000.

However, for students applying to the roughly 300 partner universities and colleges with which Intelligent Partners work, services are free.

Mr Verma says recognised services are vital, especially in a small community such as Dubai where word of mouth can ruin a business.

“People here are so desperate to get into the right colleges, they are willing to do anything for that, so they are vulnerable,” he said. “You should walk away immediately from anyone who guarantees entry into a college.”

Mr Davos is now in discussions with several Dubai schools, many of which he says have a "lack of in-house expertise".
Education USA, run by the US State Department, has offices in Abu Dhabi and Dubai that offer pre-departure briefings or one-on-one consulting for free. They advise students against using fee-charging consultants.

Jeffery Ladenson, an embassy spokesman, reiterated that no agency can guarantee entry to an institution other than the institution itself.

"There is no need for students in the UAE to engage with a private company to get into a US institution," he said. "We do that service free of charge."