Crisis! A segment of the American higher education community is in a panic over text in legislation passed by Congress and incorporated into law Aug. 1. The law, dealing with veterans’ education and training benefits, has added confusion to the controversial use of agents and recruiters to increase international enrollment.
The Training in High Demand Roles to Improve Veteran Employment Act, or THRIVE, sets new limits on institutions receiving federal funding, including, it seems, a restriction on “paying commissions or incentive payments for securing enrollments or financial aid.” The text creates considerable ambiguity about whether U.S. universities that continue to make incentive payments to recruiters for the enrollment of international students would be disqualified from receiving funds from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.
While paying commissions is forbidden for the recruitment of domestic students, it has been accepted when applied to international students. The practice has resulted from the commercialization of international study and the reliance on foreign students’ tuition fees to fill classrooms and ensure the financial survival of a growing number of American colleges and universities. International students have helped to mediate budget challenges resulting from declining domestic enrollments in many colleges, a trend exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis. It is all about the bottom line.
The Status Quo
Efforts are being made to correct this apparent legislative omission led by the American Council on Education and supported by the entire higher education “establishment” -- NAFSA: Association of International Educators, the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), the American International Recruitment Council (an oversight group composed of the agents and the colleges that use them) and others are lobbying Congress, claiming that the U.S. will be at a competitive disadvantage in recruiting international students, since the other major English-speaking host countries, mainly Australia and Britain, make heavy use of agents.
It was just a few decades ago that NACAC’s code of ethics barred member universities from using agents. In 2013, after a long debate, the organization approved the practice. EducationUSA and the State Department strongly opposed the use of agents until 2018, when the Trump administration changed course as part of its hypercommercialization strategy for higher education. Now everyone seems fully on board. According to NAFSA, 49 percent of American colleges and universities use agents. Australian and British universities heavily use agents and have fully commercialized international student strategy, directed by their respective governments to turn to the high fees charged to international students to make up for budget cuts. But their strong dependence on revenue from international students, mostly from China and India, has caused severe problems, not only due to the COVID-19 pandemic but also as a result of Brexit and geopolitical tensions between China and Australia. As a result of these crises, IDP, the Australian-owned company that is one of the largest organizations in the world promoting agents, was partly sold off by its university owners.
So What Is Wrong With Agents?
This change in the text of the THRIVE legislation should stimulate a rethink of the reliance on agents. As ACE noted in a letter to U.S. government officials, agents and nonuniversity recruiters are rewarded for serving the needs of an institution. Agents are hired by colleges and universities to deliver tuition-paying students. The hiring institutions pay commissions, typically a percentage of tuition and often amounting to thousands of dollars, for each warm body. Agents do not necessarily have the best interests of the students in mind -- they are hired by the universities
Agents help the student through the application process to the universities that contract them, and this “help” sometimes includes writing application essays and letters of reference for the student. There are numerous cases of fraud and other shenanigans, to the point that there have been several cases of application fraud prosecuted in India and China. Thus, dishonest practices are a risk of the agent system that is extremely difficult to monitor.
Much of the higher education establishment, in America and elsewhere, seems to operate on the basis that international students will not enroll unless directed by agents and taken through the admissions process held by the hand. This may indeed be necessary in some cases, but when commercial agents with a vested interest in sending students to specific institutions advise students, the result may not be the most appropriate for the student, his or her funding source (most often the student’s family), or even the institution, if the student does not remain to complete the program.
Finally, there is no well-defined profile for individuals acting as a recruitment agent, leaving a wide range of qualifications (or a lack of them) characterizing people assuming a major role in the university admissions process. Nor are there widely accepted criteria for evaluating or certifying their work.
The sums paid by American universities to agents are significant, but without reporting requirements, it is impossible to know exactly how much. A British study noted that universities typically pay agents 15 percent of the first-year tuition per enrolled student. This money could be better spent in direct services to international students -- improving university websites and providing better information to prospective candidates and their families. Funds spent in commissions could be used to add campus-based or campus-supervised admissions personnel who could provide individualized attention to prospective applicants. Government agencies such as EducationUSA at the Department of State and the Department of Commerce should allocate greater resources to provide unbiased information on American higher education locally, with better orientation to universities that may not appear in rankings but that offer excellent opportunities to international students. Some of the funds currently spent on agents should be reallocated to financial aid for needy international students.
If universities are going to persist in signing contracts with third-party recruiters, then it is imperative that the experiences of international students placed by agents receive greater supervision by impartial evaluators. Perhaps this legislative “omission” could lead to needed reform in an admissions system that does not serve students well and, without better monitoring, continues to risk ethical lapses.