During a recent session, the 26-member panel organised by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) heard from supporters of paying per-student commissions to overseas recruiters and from those who think the practice is unethical. Testimony was given by representatives of countries with robust regulatory frameworks governing foreign-student recruitment, where the use of commissioned agents is “embedded” in international strategy. Officials from four U.S. cabinet departments weighed in, with four different perspectives on the issue.
Such debates would be unthinkable—or are long since forgotten—in countries like Australia and the U.K., where the payment of incentive compensation to recruitment agents is common practice. Yet the controversy arises because many agents are paid in part on commission, and U.S. Federal law bars commission-based pay for recruiters of American students, and while many American colleges (including NACAC members) use agents to recruit students from abroad, there are others who believe the commission ban should extend to international students as well.
The NACAC panel will examine incentive compensation and other practices in international recruitment over the next 12 to 18 months. The following arguments are the highlights from the recent session, based on the reports from Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle.
Arguments in Favour of Using Agents
- It is common practice around the world – universities in many other Western nations (those with which American universities compete) already use recruitment agents, and students in developing nations who go abroad embrace their use (i.e., China and India).
- When asked if there were ethical issues associated with the use of agents, Zhang Jin of the Chinese Embassy said that there was no problem because the agents “are for-profit” so the students are free to make their own judgments.
- Competition for international students is increasing exponentially, and if the use of agents is banned, the U.S. risks losing its place as the number one study destination in the world.
- Greg Thompson, senior international trade specialist at the Commerce Department, considers agencies to be businesses like any other and are a way for colleges with little name identification abroad to raise their profile.
- Many believe agents are qualified, ethical representatives who are licensed professionals helping identify students who will enroll in the U.S. and counseling students with an objective viewpoint on which school is the best match for them.
- Local agents can better serve students and their families because they know the culture and are part of the community.
- Others feel that the use of agents is only part of the real debate. For example, Mark Shay, an education consultant who works with EduGlobal China and the regional director at IDP Education, said that American colleges like to complain about agents “bypassing admissions requirements,” instead of asking why American-style admissions is so bewildering to so many foreign students. In most of the world, he noted, admissions is “absolutely objective” and based on tests. In the United States, so much is subjective and “everything seems optional” to foreign applicants, who in turn need to rely on agents. “If you want to stamp out fraud, define a set of standards” for admissions, Shay said.
- By paying and regulating overseas agents, U.S. institutions can better control the process by incentivising recruiters to find students who are the right fit for their campuses.
The Regulation Solution
- Sarah Wolf, Australia’s education manager for North America, described the laws and regulations on the use of agents by Australian universities so that they may serve as a model. Australia’s universities are legally responsible to show that they deal only with reputable agents, have written agreements describing their relationships with agents, assure that agents have and provide accurate information, support an ombudsman to handle complaints, and release lists of all agents with which they work. Wolf described this regulatory framework (and many other rules) as evidence that the use of agents could be regulated.
- Accreditation agencies such as the American International Recruitment Council (AIRC) have established benchmarks and standards which ensure agents operate in an ethical manner. Mitch Leventhal, vice-president and treasurer of AIRC, is a proponent of a more coherent national strategy and framework, developed in consultation with the higher education sector.
- Many feel that universities ought to be given the choice to either object to using paid agents, for philosophical and/or institutional reasons, or use trained and certified agents in a transparent manner.
Arguments Against Using Agents
- Opponents cite that the U.S. does not have the infrastructure to regulate agents, and the creation of new regulatory processes would be difficult.
- Elizabeth Thornhill, branch chief of EducationUSA (the State Department programme that has field offices around the world to promote American higher education) expressed the fear that commission-paid agents “do not present students with the full breadth of options.”
- David Bergeron, deputy assistant secretary for policy, planning and innovation at the U.S. Education Department, was among those who feel that if students rely solely on agents, their options might be restricted to those colleges that offer monetary incentives, and agents earning commissions might urge students to enroll in institutions merely to meet a quota.
- Others worry that unscrupulous agents could harm American education’s reputation abroad.
The NACAC panel’s work on this question is expected to continue over the year ahead.