Reframing the Agent Debate
WASHINGTON -- When various panels started their presentations at a forum here on the use of commission-paid agents to recruit international students, it seemed like advocates for the use of agents might have the upper hand. One panel featured education officials from Australia, Britain and China -- all saying that such agents are an accepted part of recruiting foreign students in their countries, without any of the angst over the practice that exists in the United States. Another panel -- of U.S. government officials -- revealed that federal agencies are all over the map on the use of agents, and that at least some agencies are quite open to working with them.
But many members of the special panel of the National Association for College Admission Counseling seemed more ready to challenge the assumptions of the pro-agent side than to question the wisdom of bans on agents. And while there were also members who asked questions from the perspectives of those who use agents, much of the daylong meeting seemed skeptical of their use.
The NACAC panel has been charged with trying to find a path forward for the association on an issue that divides its members. Many American colleges (including NACAC members) use agents, saying that there are qualified, ethical representatives around the world who help identify students who will enroll in the U.S. The controversy arises because many of these agents are paid in part on commission. Federal law bars commission-based pay for recruiters of American students, and many at NACAC support that principle in all cases -- whether the the students are American or international.
When NACAC moved to clarify its views on the issue -- views that would have applied that principle to international recruiting -- many colleges objected, and the commission was formed. Its members include some who have been critics of the use of agents, as well as their defenders.
For NACAC, the issue has been challenging. its members take the association's code of conduct seriously, and some have feared that if NACAC takes a hard line against agents, it will either lose members or become an organization whose code of conduct is known to be violated by many members. Others have said that the association endangers its reputation for having a thoughtful code of ethics by failing to hold the line. And still others say that the world of international recruiting is full of ethical ambiguities -- many of them having nothing to do with agents.
One of the major arguments cited by defenders of agents is that universities in many other Western nations (those with which American universities compete) already use them, and that students in developing nations that send many students abroad (places like China and India) embrace their use. Officials from the embassies of Australia and Britain described how their countries' universities rely on agents, and an official from the Chinese embassy said that there was no great worry about the issue in her country.
But the commission members focused on the presentation of Sarah Wolf, Australia's education manager for North America, who described the laws and regulations about the use of agents by Australian universities. She described how 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.
Asked about whether there was person-power to manage these requirements, she said that "lots of people are employed to manage the system."
Philip Ballinger, chair of the NACAC panel and director of undergraduate admissions and assistant vice president for enrollment at the University of Washington, said that "in the United States we have nowhere near the infrastructure" that exists in Australia to regulate agents. Several other commission members chimed in on the point -- returning to it throughout the day -- noting how colleges oppose regulation, and how the diversity of American higher education makes the creation of new regulatory processes particularly difficult. (While American colleges of course complain about regulation all the time, much of that regulation is tied to federal student aid -- and foreign students are ineligible, thus removing their recruitment from that regulatory framework.)
The embassy officials were also asked whether there were any ethical issues inherent to the use of agents, and they generally said that there were not. This prompted questions on whether that might be different in an American context, when some colleges use agents, but others do not. The embassy response that may have been most notable was from Zhang Jin of the Chinese Embassy, whose remarks reflected the acceptance of capitalism in her country. Asked if there were ethical issues associated with the use of agents, she said that there was no problem because the agents "are for-profit" so the students are free to make their own judgments.
Differing Government Policies
Another major discussion concerned government policies on commission-paid agents. Officials from various agencies said that the State Department won't work with them, the Commerce Department will, and Education and Homeland Security have no policies.
Elizabeth Thornhill, branch chief of EducationUSA, the State Department program that has field offices around the world to promote American higher education, said that the agency was very intentional in not wanting to work with commission-paid agents. "Our principle is that the interests of the individual students are paramount," she said. And agents "do not present students with the full breadth of options."
She also said that since U.S. taxpayers fund the effort, "we should avoid activities that favor or give the impression of favoring one institution over another."
Greg Thompson, senior international trade specialist for the U.S. Department of Commerce, noted that his agency works with businesses all the time and treats agents as just other businesses. But Thompson was embarrassed when one of the commission members described a Commerce Department event in Vietnam for American colleges to promote themselves. After a typical program with local educators, the visiting delegation was faced with a large group of agents. The NACAC commission member said that some of them were "iffy" in terms of whether they should be doing business with American colleges.
Thompson replied that "we do our best to bring you ethical agents. Does that mean you shouldn’t do your due diligence? No," he said. "If you have a problem, you need to tell us about it."
The discussion in turn prompted David Bergeron, deputy assistant secretary for policy, planning and innovation at the U.S. Education Department, to suggest that federal policy should discourage the use of agents. "We too often forget the real purpose" of recruiting foreign students, which should be for them to have "the best possible experience," something that is more likely when those doing the recruiting don't have ties to some institutions but not others. He said the government should encourage recruiting approaches "that don't just pay for warm bodies."
Norman J. Peterson, a commission member who is vice provost for international education at Montana State University, and who favors the use of agents, did question Thornhill on whether there are other inequities associated with barring agents. Peterson said that many of those who use EducationUSA to find out how to apply to American colleges end up enrolling at a small, select group of institutions with the most international name recognition. He said that, as a result, EducationUSA's policies "inadvertently advantage some institutions more than others."
Defending the Agents
The strongest defenses of agents (in an American context) came during the open comment period at the end of the day. Josep Rota spoke on behalf of the American International Recruitment Council, a group that sets standards for agents, so that American colleges can be sure they are using reputable agents. Rota is chair of the AIRC's Certification Board and director emeritus of international development at Ohio University. Rota noted that many people in developing nations use agents -- regardless of how American colleges feel about the practice.
"Pretending that agents are not involved is a denial of reality," he said. The best approach is to regulate them.
But Rota was questioned by a NACAC commission member, Robert Watkins, assistant director of graduate admissions at the University of Texas at Austin. Watkins asked Rota if it was not true that one of the agents about which Bloomberg reported critically last year -- EIC Group -- had been accredited by AIRC. (In the article, Bloomberg reported about complaints that EIC Group agents placed Chinese students in a private American high school that focused on learned-disabled students, without telling the Chinese students of this feature of the high school. EIC Group officials said that they did not know of this characteristic of the high school and had received no complaints.)
Rota said that EIC Group had indeed been accredited at the time of the article, and still was, but had made changes since the article, and Rota said that AIRC had made some changes as well.
Mark Shay, an education consultant who represents a Chinese agent, and who formerly was a senior official at IDP, which has a major agent business, probably got in the most points for the agents side of the debate. He said at the beginning of his talk that he would be "blunt," and he was. He 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 rely on agents. "If you want to stamp out fraud, define a set of standards" for admissions, Shay said.
And while there is a perception in American academe that agents are "shady characters," he said that they are in fact "respected local business people, licensed and legal in their markets." It is American colleges, he said, who are seen as "carpetbaggers," when they come into some developing nation and say, " 'Sure, apply for admission, and be sure to include the $50 fee,' when they know that students have no chance of getting in." That's the practice, he said, that is real "profiteering."
While commission members did not rush to embrace Shay's vision, one of them did -- earlier in the day -- make the point that there are many ethical issues in international agents beyond the use of agents.
"I’d like to be clear that the issue of incentive compensation is not the whole of the story. It’s more like the tip of the iceberg," said Jim Miller, coordinator of enrollment research at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. "There are other aspects of the international recruiting and admission process that present equally formidable challenges. Transcript and test score integrity, fraudulent behavior of students and agents who are hired by families but are not compensated by colleges, third-party misrepresentation of the content and character of academic programs and campus life, and more."
The panel's work is expected to take a year. The commission meets today -- without the public.