NACAC Group Hears Pros and Cons on Use of Paid Recruiting Agents

March 05, 2012

If anything was clear after the inaugural meeting of a commission tasked with making recommendations on international-student recruitment practices, it is that the task ahead of the group is Solomonic.

During the daylong session, the 26-member panel organized by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, or 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.

James L. Miller, a commission member and the past president of NACAC, sounded an optimistic tone at the end of the day, calling the discussion constructive. But he conceded that the panel's task "will be a process of finding what's best—and asking what's realistic."

NACAC announced last summer it would name a committee to examine best practices in ethical standards for overseas recruitment, averting a potential showdown over a proposal before its governing board to immediately ban the association's members from paying agents abroad.

The board backed away from endorsing the policy change to give the group and its members more time to study the issue, said Mr. Miller, who is coordinator of enrollment research at the University of Wisconsin at Superior. "We didn't want to make a short-term decision that would ill serve us in the long term."

Instead, the commission will spend the next 18 months examining so-called incentive compensation and other practices in international recruitment.

But as Monday's meeting made clear, more time may not make the panel's work any easier. The issue of paying recruiters abroad has roiled admissions and international offices—even within individual institutions, different offices may have diametrically opposed views on the topic.

One side argues that American colleges are foolish to believe that money is not changing hands in international-student recruitment. By paying and regulating overseas agents, this group maintains, U.S. institutions can better control the process by incentivizing recruiters to find students who are the right fit for their campuses. What's more, they say, agents on the ground can better serve students and their families because they know the culture and are part of the community.

Such claims are greeted with skepticism by opponents of the practice, who say that it subverts students' interest to a profit motive. It's not right to restrict student options to those colleges that offer monetary incentives, detractors say, and agents chasing commissions might urge students to enroll in institutions merely to meet a quota. Ultimately, they worry, bad actors could harm American education's reputation abroad.

The U.S. State Department is in the critics' camp, and two and a half years ago it issued a policy forbidding its EducationUSA advising centers worldwide from working with paid agents. Speaking before the NACAC panel, Elizabeth Thornhill, EducationUSA's branch chief, said her organization's mission is to represent all U.S. institutions; working with commissioned recruiters could unintentionally favor certain institutions over others.

The Department of Education has largely kept out of the debate over incentive compensation abroad. (Federal financial-aid law does prohibit colleges from paying agents to recruit American students.)

On Monday, however, David Bergeron, deputy assistant secretary of education for policy, planning, and innovation, signaled that his agency largely saw eye to eye with the State Department. Saying that the "overarching goal is for foreign students to have the highest quality education," Mr. Bergeron said he would favor a recruitment approach that "doesn't just pay for warm bodies."

Sandwiched between Mr. Bergeron and Ms. Thornhill was Greg Thompson, a senior international trade specialist at the Commerce Department. Mr. Thompson's department isn't opposed to recruitment agents—it considers them businesses like any other and even does matchmaking between international-student recruiters and interested colleges.

Agents, Mr. Thompson said, are a way for colleges with little name identification abroad to raise their profile. "The big brand-name schools, the Harvards and the Yales," he noted, "don't come knocking on my door."

(A representative for a fourth federal branch, the Department of Homeland Security, testified that her agency is agnostic on the use of agents, although it favors "bringing down barriers" that prevent foreign students from studying in the United States.)

Different Approaches Overseas

Such debates would be unthinkable—or are long since forgotten—in countries like Australia and Britain, where government policy favors the payment of incentive compensation to recruiters.

"The use of agents is embedded in the higher-education system," Tamsin Thomas, education marketing manager for the British Council, told the commission.

Sarah Wolf, education manager for North America at the Embassy of Australia, agreed: "It's taken as a given."

Both countries have regulatory structures that provide oversight of university-agent relationships. In Britain, a variety of groups monitor overseas recruiters' work, from the nonprofit British Council, which does agent training, to the tax department, which levies tariffs on agent commissions. Australian universities must negotiate written contracts with any recruiter who sends them foreign students and list all of their agents publicly. Under a new visa system, institutions will be required to note the agent who recruited each student, Ms. Wolf said.

The Australian and British approaches may be models for the United States, but Ms. Wolf cautioned that hiring recruiters isn't a sufficient strategy on its own. "It's part of the recruitment mix—it's a very well-established part," she said. But, she added, "It's one piece of the total recruitment puzzle."

What's more, some commission members questioned whether American colleges should embrace a regulation-heavy approach such as Australia's. Peggy Blumenthal, senior counselor to the president of the Institute of International Education, noted the significant regulatory structure in place to deal with the use of paid recruiters by fewer than 40 Australian universities. "I don't know if we want to go there," she said.

Where the commission will go, however, is far from certain. During a late-afternoon public hearing, the panel heard from those who think that rather than paying commissions, NACAC and its members should work to build up the college-advising system within overseas high schools. (Few high schools in countries such as China have high-school guidance counselors because admission to universities is based solely on nationwide entrance exams.)

Jane Shropshire, an independent college counselor, spoke for the Independent Educational Consultants Association, suggesting that there must be "a better way" of attracting foreign students than using commission-based recruiters. If agents are used, NACAC should require colleges to disclose with whom they are working.

Josep Rota of Ohio University argued that such recruiters are a critical tool for colleges new to the international-student market. If institutions don't pay, then students and parents will have to bear the costs, said Mr. Rota, who is the head of the certification board of the American International Recruitment Council, a group that has developed standards of good practices for overseas recruiters and recognizes those that meet its educational requirements.

And there was a dueling set of analogies. Rahul Choudaha is director of research and advisory services at World Education Services, a nonprofit organization that specializes in foreign credentials and trends. He dismissed the notion that American colleges should embrace the use of commissioned agents because institutions in other countries employ them.

"We are being told that the train has already left. Using commissioned agents, we are being told, is the express train," he said. "But what we are not being told is that this train has no brakes."

Meanwhile, Mark Shay, who works with a large agency, EduGlobal China, said that there's a need for both paid recruiters and counseling centers, such as EducationUSA offices. Comparing agents to bookstores and advising centers to libraries, he noted that the two can coexist: "It's not like libraries are urging the boycott of bookstores, or bookstores are trying to get people to turn in their library cards," he said.

The commission is to meet privately Tuesday to review testimony and to plan its next steps. Mr. Miller said the task is a big one.

"I'd like to be clear that the issue of incentive compensation is not the whole of the story," he said in his opening remarks, ticking off other concerns in the international recruiting and admission process, including transcript and test-score integrity, misrepresentation of college programs overseas, and fraudulent behavior by students and parents. "It's more like the tip of the iceberg."

Correction (3/6, 3:02 p.m.): This article originally misstated the job title of Rahul Choudaha at World Education Services. He is director of research and advisory services, not director of development and innovation. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.