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Major higher education groups are pressing for changes to a new federal law regulating veterans’ educational benefits that they say puts colleges at risk of losing access to GI Bill benefits if they pay professional recruiters commissions to find international students and convince them to enroll at the colleges.

The Thrive Act, signed into law in June, threatens to cut off GI Bill funding for institutions that engage in incentive-based student recruitment. Unlike a similar, long-standing prohibition on incentive-based recruiting included in the Higher Education Act, the Thrive Act does not include an exception for the recruitment of international students.

Higher education groups have called for the Thrive Act to be amended and brought in alignment with the HEA. Amid such calls, lawmakers this month introduced two separate bills to amend the Thrive Act, one sponsored by Democrats and one by Republicans to address the higher education groups’ concerns.

International education experts expressed optimism the bill might be amended in light of the bipartisan support. In the meantime, the Thrive Act has posed an unexpected challenge to a common -- albeit once contentious -- practice of paying agents commissions for students recruited abroad, a practice that has grown in popularity and acceptability over the past decade.

The National Association for College Admission Counseling revised its code of ethics to allow for the practice in 2013, clearing the way for broader adoption of commission-based international recruitment strategies. A recent joint survey conducted by NACAC and the American International Recruitment Council found that almost half (49 percent) of the 294 colleges that responded use commissioned agents to recruit international undergraduate students.

Advocates for agent-based recruitment strategies say they represent a cost-effective way for colleges to recruit in a broad array of countries. Agents are typically paid a percentage of a student’s tuition payment, reducing up-front costs associated with recruitment travel and maintaining a large international student recruitment staff.

American colleges have experienced declines in new international students in recent years, and this trend accelerated sharply with the pandemic.

“With a restriction in place barring use of incentive-based agents in overseas recruitment of international students, U.S. colleges and universities will struggle greatly to reverse this decline,” Esther D. Brimmer, the executive director and CEO of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, wrote in a Sept. 20 letter to lawmakers calling for amendments to the Thrive Act.

Brimmer added, “This restriction also runs counter to the Biden administration’s recently issued Joint Statement of Principles in Support of International Education led by the Departments of State and Education, which emphasizes ‘the U.S. government’s commitment to support key facets of international education, in partnership with U.S. higher education institutions.’”

Jill Allen Murray, NAFSA’s deputy executive director for public policy, said the new law will disrupt a well-established process for student recruitment.

“The issue right now is we have a system in place that many institutions use, and this law threatens to ban it,” she said.

“NAFSA’s really pleased to see these bills introduced to see that both sides of the aisle see the need for the fix, and we’re really hopeful that Congress will move quickly to advance these bills into law,” Murray said. “Now is not the time to allow this challenge to persist. International student enrollment is too important.”

Longtime critics of the practice say the prohibition in the Thrive Act should be an opportunity to reconsider the long-standing carveout of international student recruitment from the Higher Education Act’s general ban on incentive compensation. Critics argue that a commission-based payment structure risks putting the interests of institutions ahead of those of students, and that it also incentivizes fraudulent practices such as the submission of falsified or ghostwritten application materials.

“Engaging in processes that we view as unacceptable or corrupt here in the U.S. just because those practices are taking place overseas will change the nature of the university itself,” said Barmak Nassirian, a longtime critic of the use of commissioned agents in international recruitment. Nassirian, who is vice president for higher education policy at Veterans Education Success, emphasized he was speaking personally and not on behalf of the organization, which supports the Thrive Act as an important program integrity measure but does not have a position on the international student recruitment issue specifically.

Another longtime critic of the practice, Philip Altbach, a research professor and distinguished professor at Boston College’s Center for International Higher Education, said he’s been “beating this dead horse for years … until Congress stepped forward and raised the dead horse from the grave.”

Altbach would like to see the practice be openly debated again, though he is not hopeful about that happening.

“If the entire industry with all of its lobbying power and so on wants to keep the status quo, there’s no reason at all to expect it would change,” he said.

It is not clear to what degree, if at all, colleges have changed their recruitment practices in response to the Thrive Act.

“I think with good reason institutions are hesitant to share how they are approaching the situation,” said Brian Whalen, executive director of the American International Recruitment Council, an organization that developed standards of ethical practice for agency-based international recruitment and that certifies agencies based on those standards.

“Those institutions that are on a semester calendar may not be as impacted right now because they are in-between enrollment cycles,” Whalen said via email. “What I have heard is that institutions are hopeful that the bill is amended as quickly as possible and they are being very active in reaching out to their Congressional representatives.”

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