In the Recruitment-Agent Debate, a Case for Full Disclosure

Karin Fischer, an international reporter at The Chronicle, is filing occasional updates this week from the annual conference of the Overseas Association for College Admission Counseling, an organization of college-admissions officers and overseas education advisers.

Poughkeepsie, N.Y. — A recent report on paid international-student recruiters, issued by a commission convened by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, says colleges that work with the agents should “provide clear and conspicuous disclosure” of the relationships.

Exactly what form such disclosure could or should take is unclear, and it’s something the admissions group’s board will have to hammer out before it puts the commission’s report up for a vote of its members this September. One possibility is that colleges could be required to post on their Web sites a list of their paid agents, Jim L. Miller, a former NACAC president and a commission member, said during a meeting here this week of the Overseas Association for College Admission Counseling. (The overseas group, or OACAC, is an affiliate of NACAC.)

Already, some colleges do just that. The University of Cincinnati, for example, posts online a list of all the overseas recruitment agencies it works with.

But that, of course, deals only with recruiters paid by colleges, which was the scope of the NACAC commission. Of equal—and, in some cases, greater—concern to American institutions are agents not paid by colleges themselves but by would-be students and their families. The practice is pervasive in countries like China, the largest source of foreign students in the United States, and, as my colleague Tom Bartlett and I have written, those agents all too frequently engage in unethical behavior, such as falsifying transcripts, forging recommendation letters, or ghostwriting admissions essays for students.

What’s more, the agents may misrepresent themselves to the families of prospective students, lying about their connections to an American college or even promising admission. Such practices deeply trouble colleges, but what can they do about it?

During this week’s conference one possibility was raised: “How many of us put on our Web site, ‘We don’t work with agents’?” asked Ffiona Rees, senior associate director of international recruitment at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Ms. Rees has spent the last several years leading an OACAC subcommittee that grapples with the ethics of admissions and enrollment practices, and her notion is an intriguing, elegantly simple one. Indeed, Mr. Miller said he would raise it when the NACAC board considers the commission’s report.

I’ve come across just one college that includes such language on its admissions home page, although I readily admit to not having conducted an exhaustive search. That institution is Cornell University, which posts the following on its Web site for international undergraduate admission:

Cornell University expects all applicants to complete their application materials without the use of paid agents or credentialing services.

The use of such services violates University policy, and may lead to the rejection of application materials, the revocation of an admissions offer, cancellation of admission, or involuntary withdrawal from the University.

When I asked Lee Melvin, then the associate vice provost for enrollment, about the language last year, he told me it had arisen out of a worry that overseas applicants were not completing their own admissions materials and that some documents were possibly being doctored. Cornell doesn’t oppose prospective students’ getting outside advice on the admissions process, he told me, but the university believes that any application submitted should be a student’s own.

Is posting an online statement about agent practices the solution for colleges worried about fraud and abuse in overseas applications? Probably not. While students seeking to study overseas do regularly spend time on colleges’ Web sites, their parents—the ones who typically hire outside recruiters—may not. In fact, the parents may not even read English.

And as more than one person pointed out to me, universities don’t always have consistent institutionwide policies on agents. While the undergraduate admissions office may not work with agents, English-language programs or professional schools at the same institution may very well pay recruiters. So, is it possible to say unequivocally that an institution doesn’t work with agents? Not always.

Still, given all the concern about fraud and false promises, could public disclosure of a college’s policy on recruitment agents, whether or not it works with them, be a start?

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