Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF
20th Oct 2021

US legislative amendments aim to clarify use of agents in international student recruitment

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • Whether it represents an “omission” or purposeful intent, a section in recently passed US law appears to prohibit US educators from compensating agents for international student recruitment
  • Efforts are underway, in the form of recently proposed legislative amendments, to introduce “technical corrections” to the act which would reverse that ban

Efforts are underway to have the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) amend new legislation passed in June 2021 – the THRIVE Act – whose wording, in one section, appears to present a barrier for American higher education institutions in using education agents for international student recruitment.

The potential implications of the THRIVE Act naturally provoked alarm in higher education circles across the country, not to mention among agents. Nearly half of 294 US institutions surveyed recently by the American International Recruitment Council (AIRC) and the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) work with agents to recruit international undergraduate students.


The THRIVE Act’s main purpose is actually to improve the education and employment prospects of veterans who have served in the US military. It is meant to update the training standards, programmes, and policies of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). But it also includes a provision that institutions will be barred from receiving US Department of Veterans Affairs funding if they “provide a commission, bonus or other incentive payment based directly or indirectly on success in securing enrolments or financial aid to any persons or entities engaged in any student recruiting or admission activities or in making decisions regarding award of financial assistance.”

The THRIVE Act further sets out that,

“The VA must take certain disciplinary action when any person with whom an educational institution has an agreement for marketing, advertising, educational programmes, recruiting, or admissions services engages in specified behaviors, such as providing a type of incentive payment to persons engaged in student recruiting.”

Penalties could include not approving a school's new study programmes or reversing the approval of previously approved programmes.

Breaks with precedent

The provision breaks with a precedent set forth in the Higher Education Act of 1965. That Act also prohibits institutions from providing incentive-based compensation for the recruitment of domestic students but does not apply the same restriction to the recruitment of international students. Specifically, it allows for agents to be compensated for recruiting “foreign students residing in foreign countries who are not eligible to receive Federal student assistance.”

The push to amend

Groups including the American Council on Education (ACE), the American International Recruitment Council (AIRC), and NAFSA have been active in pressing for a repeal of the ban on providing results-based compensation to agents for recruiting international students. Their letters and lobbying have apparently been successful, as a new bill is currently circulating in Congress urging “improvements” to the text in the THRIVE Act.

On 8 October, US Congressman Mike Bost introduced Bill H.R. 5509 which contains suggestions for amendments including an exception that would allow for agent compensation for “the recruitment of foreign students residing in foreign countries who are not eligible to receive Federal student assistance.”

AIRC has also provided resources and guidance for US educators interested in seeing corrections made to the THRIVE Act. As AIRC Executive Director Brian Whalen explained to ICEF Monitor,

"Institutions need clarity on how they conduct their international student recruitment with their educational agency partners.” These technical corrections will provide that by acknowledging the precedent established by the Higher Education Act, which recognises the legality of incentive-based compensation in the recruitment of international students. When these amendments are passed, the recognition of incentive-based compensation as a legitimate way to recruit international students will be even more firmly established in US law."

For its part, NAFSA is treating the THRIVE Act’s wording about international student recruitment through paid agents as an “omission.” In a letter to senators and representatives on the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) committees, Esther D. Brimmer, Executive Director & CEO of NAFSA writes,

“We understand that the committees are aware of this omission and are working to enact a legislative fix. We appreciate this, and urge swift action to do so, as US colleges and universities wish to remain in compliance.”

Ms Brimmer notes that correcting the omission is especially important for two reasons. If the THRIVE Act is not amended, she points out:

  • It will hamper US educators’ ability to reverse a significant decline in international students;
  • It “runs counter to the Biden administration’s recently issued Joint Statement of Principles in Support of International Education led by the Departments of State and Education, which emphasises ‘the US government’s commitment to support key facets of international education, in partnership with US higher education institutions.’”

Growing use of agents

The THRIVE Act, in its current form, is not the first time that US educators have been banned from offering agents incentives-based compensation for recruiting international students. Until 2013, the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) had also prohibited this practice. The association’s Statement of Principles of Good Practice (2013) removed the ban, opening the door for significant growth in recruiting via agents for US institutions.

For additional background, please see:

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