Holding the Line on Agents

Admissions group releases draft policy that explicitly bars paying commissions for recruiting students -- in the U.S. or abroad.
May 20, 2011

The National Association for College Admission Counseling has long had a policy barring commission payments to anyone for recruiting or enrolling students. The policy is consistent with U.S. law with regard to domestic students -- a statute that was developed in part out of concerns over admissions practices at some for-profit institutions.

The U.S. law doesn't apply to the recruitment of foreign students -- and a growing number of colleges have employed agents, who are paid in part on commission, to recruit abroad. Advocates for the use of agents have been encouraging NACAC to consider differentiating between the recruitment of foreign and domestic students, and permitting commissions for recruiting the former. But NACAC appears headed in the opposite direction. The association's board has released a draft policy revision that clarifies the issue only by being more explicit that the ban on commissions applies whether the recruited students are in the U.S. or abroad.

"NACAC’s core principles are intended to serve the student interest in the transition from secondary to postsecondary education. Members will readily acknowledge that the number of students enrolled in a given academic year is a matter of great importance to all institutions of higher education. However, reducing the basis for compensation to the number of students enrolled in any circumstance introduces an incentive for recruiters to ignore the student interest in the transition to postsecondary education, and invites complications involving misrepresentation, conflict of interest, and fraud at the expense of the student," says the explanation in the draft policy.

It continues: "NACAC’s historic concern with the treatment of admission officers as professionals, rather than salespersons, is rooted in the interest of students in transition to postsecondary education. Because the transition to higher education is an unsystematic, often opaque process that individuals possessing varying levels of ‘college knowledge’ must navigate, the information asymmetry between the employees in charge of recruiting and prospective students is immense. In an unregulated environment, the potential for misrepresentation and outright fraud is abundant, which presents challenges for students, institutions, and other stakeholders."

The draft policy notes that it would not bar the use of agents -- only compensation based on the number of students recruited. "NACAC is not opposed to the use of agents or agencies to recruit international students," the draft states. "We believe, however, that the use of agents who are compensated in the form of bonus, commission or other incentive payment on the basis of the number of students recruited or enrolled creates an environment in which misrepresentation and conflicts of interests are unavoidable."

The issue of commission-based agents has been the subject of increasing debate within NACAC and at gatherings of international education experts in recent years. Critics of their use have said that once an agent has an incentive for a student to enroll at a particular institution, that person can no longer focus on the best fit for the student. They have also argued that the same principles that apply to American students should apply to those from other countries. In a recent rewrite of federal rules, the U.S. Education Department has simplified -- in a way that toughens -- its regulation that bars the use of incentive compensation to recruit students domestically.

Both critics and defenders of the use of commission-based agents agree that there are many disreputable agents abroad -- people who may be helping applicants deceive colleges and who regularly overstate their ties to American institutions. But companies that employ agents and colleges that use them say that banning the use of all commission-based agents is unrealistic, and that what the field needs is regulation, not prohibition. These proponents of the use of agents argue that -- with appropriate oversight -- agents provide valuable services to both applicants and colleges. Further, they note that banning the use of commission-based agents would make it very difficult for many colleges to recruit students abroad, since only a minority of institutions have the resources and expertise to do so.

The American International Recruitment Council is an organization that has created a certification process for agents and companies that employ them -- and its members had been hoping NACAC would change its views.

John Deupree, executive director of the council, said via e-mail that NACAC is taking the wrong approach. "We believe that, far from being unethical, commission-based payments to professional agencies which have delivered highly qualified students, based on qualifications an institution has set, have proven to be a highly effective practice in major global education markets and provide a significant strategic advantage to institutions," Deupree said.

"Rather than banning the practice of using commission based agencies, AIRC therefore calls upon NACAC to embrace the process of standards development and certification developed by U.S. accredited institutions and based on global standards and best practice, which is embodied in the work of AIRC."


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