Avoiding Showdown on Agents

Admissions group holds off on adopting rule that would explicitly bar commission-based payments to recruit international students.
July 29, 2011

The National Association for College Admission Counseling -- whose board just months ago took a strong stand against the use of commission-based agents to recruit international students -- is delaying for at least two years any move to exclude colleges that disagree with such a stance. Further, NACAC will appoint a new commission to study the issue, raising the possibility that the association may not ever explicitly bar the use of agents.

These actions by NACAC's board were announced Thursday, along with a statement that the board was affirming its position that colleges should not use agents paid in part on commission to recruit students. Despite that latter statement, supporters of the use of agents viewed the actions as a victory, and predicted that the practice would continue to spread.

Jim L. Miller, coordinator of enrollment research at the University of Wisconsin at Superior and president of NACAC's board, said in an interview that the board's draft policy of a few months ago was "a provocative statement, because we wanted to hear from people and learn what they had to say."

One of the things board members learned, he said, was that some 200 colleges and universities are already using agents paid at least in part on commission. Given that these colleges took their positions before the proposed clarification of NACAC policy, Miller said, it seemed wrong to punish them under the policy. That's why the board decided to wait for two years before enforcing any new rules that could be adopted. The NACAC statement also said that the association would work during those two years to identify alternatives to the use of agents. Miller said he hoped this research might persuade some colleges to abandon the practice, which has been growing in recent years in the United States.

Miller stressed that the NACAC board's decision to adopt the two-year delay was not based on fears that a new rule would result in lost members, although he acknowledged that moving ahead would have had an impact. "We thought about what was right for students," he said. The board's stance against the use of agents has strong backing among NACAC's rank and file. At discussions of the issue at NACAC meetings, critics of agents are vocal, and are loudly applauded.

But Miller acknowledged that many colleges and universities are not leaving the decision on whether to use agents to admissions offices. Indeed, among those criticizing NACAC was an association of university presidents: the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. Peter McPherson, president of APLU, wrote to NACAC last month to call for a broader discussion of the issues involving constituencies outside the admissions world.

McPherson wrote that the proposed NACAC ban would hinder "institutions’ ability to recruit international students in the highly competitive global higher education market," adding that the use of agents was "standard business practice in international student recruiting."

A Decade of Discussions

NACAC has been discussing the issue of agents since 2000. Federal law bars commission-based payments for recruiting students in the United States, but does not prohibit such activity abroad. In many of the countries that compete with the United States for international students -- Britain and Australia, for example -- universities' use of agents for recruiting has become common. And in countries such as China, the use of agents (with huge variation in quality and ethics) is common among families seeking to help their children get into a university in a Western nation.

In recent years, the issue has become more contentious at NACAC meetings (even as the use of agents has become more accepted in many international education circles). Many colleges in the United States increasingly have goals of increasing their international undergraduate enrollments. And while that may be relatively straightforward for the universities with global name recognition, doing so is much more difficult for the vast majority of American colleges -- institutions that are unknown in Shanghai or Mumbai. Many of those colleges (Miller of NACAC estimated Thursday that the number is around 200) have moved to use agents.

The argument for the use of agents generally goes like this: Students in much of the world don't have access to guidance counselors with the expertise that an American high schooler can expect, and colleges can't afford to reach every possible student. A good agent can help everyone involved. As to the reports that many agents in China and elsewhere are unethical, proponents of the use of agents don't dispute that at all. They argue that this is why colleges need to find ways to certify good agents, so that there are professionals who can be trusted by applicants, families and colleges.

The argument against the use of agents was largely summed up in the statement issued by NACAC's board in May.

"[R]educing 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," said the draft. "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."

What Changed?

Miller, the NACAC president, said that the association's board continues to believe that the use of agents paid in part on commission is wrong. He said, for example, that the board discussed the option of making the policy part of the association's recommendations for "good practice," as opposed to a mandatory rule.

But Miller said that board members felt that such an approach would amount to saying, "We don't like it, but if you want to do it, go ahead." He said that the board believes that the use of agents "is not a good thing and we don't want to enable it."

At the same time, Miller said that it is clear that many colleges -- particularly those that are not famous and not located in "destination" cities -- feel that they need agents to recruit international students. That's why, over the next two years, but starting immediately, the board committed itself to providing "members and other interested institutions with alternative, affordable and ethical approaches to international recruitment using activities that will protect students and achieve enrollment objectives."

The American International Recruitment Council, a group that certifies agents as meeting appropriate standards, on Thursday issued a statement praising NACAC's latest move. Further, the AIRC said that it is time for the U.S. State Department to reconsider its policy guidance generally limiting EducationUSA Centers in embassies around the world from working with commercial agents.

Norm Peterson, vice provost for international education at Montana State University and an AIRC board member, said that the latest statements from NACAC were "very positive." He said that "I think NACAC is stepping back, and that they are responding to the APLU and others."

Peterson said he was skeptical that most colleges could recruit international students without agents paid in part on commission. He said, for instance, that some in NACAC who oppose the use of commission-based agents have said that they would be fine with flat fees. "Anyone with experience would know that fixed-price contracts are going to be even more detrimental in terms of motivating agents to behave in unethical ways," Peterson said. "Although their payments aren't connected to a particular student, if they don't come up with students, there's no way universities will extend those arrangements."

He said that Montana State uses agents and watches their work. He said that he has from time to time fired agents when he had doubts about their ethics. But he said that "you can work with agents in a completely ethical manner." He said that, with agents, "we are getting good applications and they are appropriate applications." (About 600 of Montana State's 12,000 undergraduates are from outside the United States.)

Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers and an outspoken critic of the use of agents, said he wasn't sure that the strong NACAC stance of May was being abandoned.

"I understand that the pro-agent side is breaking out the champagne, but I think they may be celebrating a short-lived victory," he said. NACAC "has a fairly elaborate process for making changes in its bedrock policy statement," and so taking more time and consulting more entities is entirely consistent with its approach to many issues, Nassirian said. "It seems to me that the more deliberative NACAC is, the more likely that the final outcome will be a principled one."

Nassirian also said that it was important to view this issue in the context of larger trends in college admissions -- trends that worry many in the field. "This is part of the corporatization of American higher education," he said. "Every element of institutional encounters with students is being turned into a profit center."

Who Decides?

One of the problems for admissions officials who are critical of agents is that they are not necessarily the ones who will decide on the issue at various campuses.

Miller, of Wisconsin-Superior, the NACAC president, is an example of this. He pointed with pride to the institution's track record. Although his institution is not famous or in a location that is a draw in China or India, 8 to 9 percent of undergraduate enrollment most years is from outside the United States. While a large contingent of the students (30 percent) come from China, Superior has managed to recruit students from all over the world -- 32 countries right now.

The university has achieved this success by having an international admissions staff person who travels extensively, and by investing money in student aid, so that non-wealthy students can be recruited.

In many ways, Superior demonstrates that colleges can achieve a critical mass of international students without the use of agents. The university doesn't use them. But now, seeking to attract still more students from abroad, Superior officials are talking about a policy change, and about whether to use agents. Miller said that no decision has been made, and that he'll be part of the process, but the call won't be made in the admissions office.

"That is the case at numerous institutions," he said. "The NACAC member may not make the decision."


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