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In a long-running debate over the ethics of using commissioned agents in international student recruitment, the U.S. Department of State stood steadfastly against the practice.

Even as the number of American colleges and universities engaging commission-based agents overseas grew, a long-standing policy prohibited staff at EducationUSA advising centers from partnering with any agent who stood to receive a commission from an institution in exchange for recruiting a student. Such per-student payments are common among those working to recruit students in China, India, South Korea and elsewhere.

“Agents receiving compensation under such an arrangement cannot be expected to give priority to a student’s need to explore the full range of options provided by the diversity of U.S. higher education,” the policy held.

But now the State Department has updated its policy to make EducationUSA information and resources available to agents and to include agents working with U.S. higher education institutions in EducationUSA events and meetings. About 550 EducationUSA advisers provide counseling on U.S. higher education options at about 425 centers in about 180 countries worldwide.

“EducationUSA advisers around the world will continue to give top priority to working with prospective international students as well as working directly with accredited U.S. higher education institutions,” Caroline Casagrande, deputy assistant secretary of state for academic programs, said in written answers to questions. “At the same time, recognizing the important role of other stakeholders in this area, we have significantly expanded the information we make publicly available related to EducationUSA. We welcome agents and other professionals working with U.S. universities to access that information and use it in their work. We will include agents and other legitimate stakeholders working with U.S. universities in EducationUSA events and meetings.”

Although the old policy on commissioned agents is still on the EducationUSA website, a spokesman for the State Department said the language on the site would be updated soon.

Earlier this month State Department officials participated for the first time in the annual meeting of the American International Recruitment Council (AIRC), an association of universities that vets and certifies overseas recruitment agencies in a process modeled after accreditation.

Asked about the decision to participate in the event, Casagrande said the State Department’s goal is to increase the number of international students studying in the U.S. and to promote all accredited American institutions.

“As part of that effort, we feel we are missing opportunities if we do not work with U.S. colleges and universities that have elected to work with agents and to do so in accordance with best practices,” Casagrande said. “We are committed to making EducationUSA information resources available to all higher education institutions, agents and other legitimate third party actors. Our goal is to increase the number of international students in the United States, while providing students access to complete information about all their educational options through open and transparent processes, reflecting the quality and integrity of the U.S. higher education system.”

Mike Finnell, the executive director of AIRC, said he believes the change of view at State reflects growing acceptance of the commission-based model as a valid recruiting practice and the increased use of agents in the U.S. market. Surveys from the National Association for College Admission Counseling found that 38.5 percent of institutions reported using agents in 2017, up from 30 percent in 2010.

From AIRC's perspective, Finnell said the association appreciated "the recognition that certification of agencies through AIRC is a best practice in working with agencies."

At the AIRC meeting, "people felt this was a historic event and very much a significant change,” Finnell said. “A line was drawn in the sand of not working with agents. I think it’s reflecting the realities of what happened in the U.S. in the market in the past decade and hopefully at least from AIRC’s perspective will encourage more agents to go through certification so we can add to the pool of quality agents who have gone through this deep and rigorous process.”

Proponents of commission-based agent recruitment say it’s a cost-effective way for institutions to recruit across a broad swath of countries and that colleges can responsibly and ethically recruit using agents if they put proper professional standards and oversight in place. They also point out that the agent-based recruitment model is widely embraced by universities in countries with which the U.S. competes for students, including Australia, Britain and Canada.

Opponents of the practice say that per-capita commissions incentivize agents to prioritize their own financial interests over the interests of the student, that it is difficult if not impossible for colleges to adequately oversee networks of agents operating on their behalf overseas and that the financial incentives built into the model can increase the risk of application fraud. Federal law prohibits universities from paying incentive-based compensation for the recruitment of domestic students, but the prohibition does not extend to international students who are not eligible for federal financial aid.

Philip Altbach, a research professor and founding director of Boston College’s Center for International Higher Education and a critic of the practice of using commissioned agents, said he was not surprised by the change to the State Department’s policy in light of what he described as the Trump administration’s overall movement toward an open-market orientation with “no concern about standards and quality.”

“Hypercommercialization and market orientation -- every little part of the Trump administration is headed in that direction, so I’m not at all surprised that EducationUSA is giving up the ghost,” Altbach said.

"I think that’s highly unfortunate because I think there are problems with the basic concept of agents -- and there are even more problems even if one accepts the basic concept with managing quality," he said. "And if the U.S. government is just generally accepting any agent, or more or less any agent, that’s a problem for maintaining standards of American higher education, and also, by the way, best serving international students who will be given commercially oriented advice which EdUSA over many, many years, to its great credit, has not done."

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