Ambivalent on Agents

At admissions meeting, many remain uncomfortable with a controversial strategy for recruiting international students, but evidence abounds that the practice is growing.

September 26, 2011

NEW ORLEANS -- When nominees as officers or board members for the National Association for College Admission Counseling spoke to the organization’s Assembly here Saturday, the association asked them to focus their campaign pitches on ethics. Of course, no one would run for office on an anti-ethics platform, and the candidates spoke with passion about how the right values must be central to all of the duties of admissions officers and their association.

But several of the candidates and other speakers here, referencing the current debate over the use of commission-paid agents to recruit international students, reminded association members of the way admissions ethics have evolved. Not so long ago, private counselors (those who work directly for applicants and families) were personae non gratae at the association, and their work was considered antithetical to the association’s values. Today, private counselors are active members (and some are leaders) in the association.

The reminders reflected a very awkward reality facing NACAC. The association’s board released a draft policy in May that would have barred the use of commission-based agents to recruit international students. The draft was accompanied by a statement framing the issue as an ethical one: "[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 statement.

But just two months later, the association put the draft policy on hold. One key problem for those advocating a strict ban is that a growing number of colleges are moving ahead – in many cases based on the decisions of administrators further up the administrative hierarchy than admissions directors – and deciding to use agents. The association will take no action on the issue for two years, and will instead have a new panel study the issue, and explore alternatives to the use of agents.

Philip Ballinger, director of undergraduate admissions and assistant vice president for enrollment at the University of Washington, was named as one of two people who will lead the issue. Via e-mail, he said that his institution does not use commission-paid agents, and that his only role in the debate has been participating in discussion at NACAC meetings. At last year's NACAC meeting, he voiced skepticism about commission-based agents, saying that "this goes to the heart of the tension we’ve been experiencing for many years, which is what is the nature of what we do” in admissions. He said that the tension is a divide between viewing admissions as "connected to the educational mission" of academe and viewing admissions as "essentially sales."

The other co-chair and members have yet to be named, but officials here said that the other leader for the panel might come from outside the association, and there was much talk about who should be on the panel.

In a 40-minute discussion during the association’s assembly meeting, several delegates proposed groups that should be involved in the discussion, including secondary schools that also use incentive-based recruiters, individuals in higher education outside of the admissions process, and individuals in other countries who regularly deal with incentive-based recruiters.

NACAC’s chief executive officer, Joyce Smith, said who is named to the commission is an integral part of the association’s plan moving forward, and she said the association will carefully craft the commission to include broad representation.

Most delegates expressed support for the plan, though some expressed reservations about the two-year moratorium on action. “In the next two years, something really bad could happen to a student,” said Renee Orlick, director of admissions operations at Colorado State University. “I’m concerned that if we do nothing for two years, we won’t be able to protect the student.”

NACAC officials said the association will still be fielding complaints, and that information will be incorporated into the association's process of dealing with the issue. It simply will not take action on any cases during the moratorium. Tom Weede, vice president for enrollment at Baylor University and chairman of NACAC’s Admissions Practices Committee, said the association typically doesn’t act quickly enough to protect individual students from harm, so the moratorium really isn’t an impediment to action.

The discussion did bring up one issue NACAC officials had not previously considered. Anne Richardson, director of college counseling at Kents Hill School, raised the issue of international students in U.S. secondary schools facing the same kind of pressure from incentive-based recruiters. NACAC officials said that would be sorted out during the next two years.

Donna Shaffner, dean of admission at Canisius College, asked that the association and its members start being more honest about the goals of recruiting international students, including the fact that many institutions want to recruit them because they bring in more tuition revenue than other students. (For public institutions, this is because they pay out-of-state rates, and for both public and private institutions, this is because many institutions focus recruitment of international students on those who do not need financial aid.)

Weede said that perspective is fallacious. “We view them as students first and not profit centers,” he said. "They have financial concerns the same as any other student does.” He said characterizing international students as profit centers is a stereotype that is not true and would be unfair for all institutions and students.

Advocates for the use of commission-based agents say that the field – while including many who are unscrupulous – also includes many reputable, thoughtful individuals who are a key part of the admissions process in places like China and India, where colleges in the United States want more students. Critics tend to say that there is something inherently unethical about students being advised by people who are paid in part on how many students they produce – a practice that U.S. law bars for the recruitment of domestic students and that the ethics code of the Independent Educational Consultants Association also bars.

A recent survey by Inside Higher Ed found that while most admissions directors favor a ban on the practice, and back NACAC’s draft policy, a majority of institutions either are already using commission-based agents or are considering their use. Privately, several admissions officials here who are opposed to the use of commission-paid agents said that they increasingly felt that the relevant metaphor was "a train that has left the station" and that the association will have a tough time trying to enforce a ban.

Michael Maine, national university relations manager in North America for IDP Education, which has agents operating around the world for colleges and universities, said that he had expected he might receive a hostile reaction at NACAC, but that this was not the case. “As a practical matter, people understand that universities are already doing it,” he said.

IDP – whose agents are paid in part on commission -- has in excess of 80 American colleges and universities as clients, and most of them signed on in the last year, Maine said.

Stephen Foster, president of the American International Recruitment Council, a group that certifies agents as meeting appropriate standards, said that he felt many of the association members were open to the idea of working with the council. Foster, associate vice president for international affairs at Wright State University, said that "the discussion at NACAC appears to be moving away from a black and white perspective on the use of commission-based agencies."

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