Admissions Group Wants to Hear All Views on the Ethics of Paying International-Student Recruiters

September 25, 2011

The director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Washington will lead a special panel to study the ethics of paying per-student commissions to overseas recruiters, the National Association for College Admission Counseling announced on Saturday.

The director, Philip A. Ballinger, who is widely regarded as one of his profession's most thoughtful members, will co-chair the commission created to explore the contentious issue. James L. Miller, NACAC's departing president, said he expects to name the panel's other co-chair, as well as 15 to 20 commission members, by the end of October.

While the agent debate has raised temperatures in both admissions and international education, Mr. Ballinger, reached by phone in Seattle, said he had no preconceived position on the issue of how recruiters are compensated. Although Washington has a large international-student population, this fall marks the university's first efforts to actively recruit undergraduates overseas. Washington does not pay foreign agents, said Mr. Ballinger. He was ready, he said, to consider different points of view: "The image I have of the commission is an ear, a big ear, to listen to everything."

The importance of listening to any and all opinions was a common refrain at the association's annual conference here last week. During a meeting of NACAC's voting delegates on Saturday, the association's leaders said that a thorough review of the hot-button issue was necessary, even though many admissions officers and high-school counselors said they had hoped the association would take a strong and immediate stand.

"The intent is not to have a witch-hunt," Joyce E. Smith, NACAC's chief executive, told the association's delegates on Saturday. "I truly believe this is a time of exploring and education."

In July, NACAC announced that it would set up a committee to recommend ethical standards for best practices in international recruitment, surprising many observers, who had expected that the admission group would move forward with a proposal to ban its members from paying per-student commissions to overseas recruiters. (The practice already is forbidden domestically, under federal financial-aid law.)

But Mr. Miller, who is also coordinator of enrollment research at the University of Wisconsin at Superior, said the organization needed time to study the divisive issue. The panel will consider alternatives to commission-based recruiting, discuss ethical standards for recruitment, and suggest new mechanisms to help prospective foreign students better understand American higher education, and to help American colleges more effectively attract students abroad. It will report back to the NACAC board and is expected to spend about 18 months on its assignment.

Building a Diverse Panel

Asked about the relatively slow pace in naming the commission, Mr. Miller said he was taking time to winnow down the list of possible candidates, noting that even at this past weekend's annual meeting, more people were volunteering to serve. He said he wanted the panel to include a broad cross-section of perspectives, including a member of the American International Recruitment Council, an organization that sets standards for and issues credentials to overseas recruiters. The group has been the strongest voice in support of paying commissions abroad. "We want them in the tent," Mr. Miller said.

NACAC officials have said they hope the group will include other voices on the issue of commission-paid agents, including overseas high-school counselors, registrars, foreign-student advisers, and even college presidents. "We're trying to get as many people around the table as we can," said David A. Hawkins, the association's director of public policy and research. "The last thing we want to have happen is to get to the end of the process and have people say, 'Well, you didn't ask us.'"

As more American colleges move to more aggressively recruit overseas, the debate over whether to pay commissions to recruiters has become increasingly contentious. Advocates for the practice note that other countries, including Australia and Britain, already rely on foreign representatives to bring in students. Locally based recruiters, they say, can help attract students in an increasingly competitive global market. They also argue that a ban would not end the use of agents but would rather drive the practice underground.

On the other side of the debate are those, including officials with the U.S. State Department, who believe that when recruiters are being paid by colleges, students' interests are no longer their first priority. Bad-actor agents who misrepresent colleges or press students toward specific campuses to meet recruitment quotas could undermine the integrity of American higher education abroad, they worry.

Conflicting Interests

On Saturday, James W. Jump, past president of NACAC, described the debate as a crucial moment for the admissions profession. "NACAC can solve this issue badly if we do it quickly," he said. Mr. Jump, who is also director of guidance at St. Christopher's School, in Richmond, Va., said the continuing discussion of paid agents revealed an inherent tension between commerce and counseling within the admissions field: "To what extent are we a business, and to what extent are we a profession?"

The issue has already raised questions about NACAC's authority. Ms. Smith said she had received many letters from college presidents in recent months. Trust us to deal with the issue on our own, some of those letters said. Leaders of several community colleges have told NACAC that without agents, they wouldn't be able to bring international students to their campuses. "Many have questioned who the hell we were to suddenly try to govern the world," Ms. Smith said. Other presidents, however, have told her that they would wait to see what the association did before initiating contracts with agents.

Amid the calls for patience, some delegates expressed concern about the association's plans for a deliberate approach to the issue. "I understand and appreciate that the commission will take time, but I sort of fear this 'Hear no evil, see no evil' thing happening," said Renée Orlick, chairwoman of the Rocky Mountain Association for College Admission Counseling's Admission Practices Committee. "In two years, something really bad could happen to students ... if we do nothing for two years, I'm afraid we won't be able to serve them and protect them."

Ms. Orlick, who is also director of admissions operations at Colorado State University at Fort Collins, urged the committee to share information about its findings as it goes along. Ms. Smith replied that NACAC would keep members updated on its progress. "We're not going to be silent for 18 months and then, boom, hit you with a lot of information," she said.

On Saturday, comments from several delegates revealed how the debate over paid agents entwines with larger questions about campus diversity and revenue. "For many schools, being tuition-driven, the international market is critical," said Donna Shaffner, dean of admissions at Canisius College. Recruiting more full-paying students from overseas, she said, can benefit domestic students, more and more of whom have significant financial need.

During an ensuing discussion about the bottom-line benefits of expanding enrollments of international students, Thomas Weede, chairman of NACAC's Admissions Practices Committee and vice president for enrollment management at Butler University, spoke up. "I think we need to keep in mind that international students are students first and not profit centers," he said.

This promoted another delegate to stand up. "At many institutions right now, if they did not have a strong international base, they would be closing, and that's a fact," she said. Nonetheless, she said, colleges "don't look at them as a profit margin—they look at them as a benefit to diversity on their campuses."

Karin Fischer reported from Washington.