Shift on Agents

Admissions association panel seeks to lift ban on agents paid on commission in international student recruiting -- while maintaining that the "best practice" is not to use them at all.

June 13, 2013

A special commission studying the use of commission-based recruitment of international students has urged the National Association for College Admission Counseling to lift a ban on the practice, while at the same time discouraging it.

In a pre-release version of the commission report obtained by Inside Higher Ed, NACAC's Commission on International Student Recruitment recommends that the association's policies be amended to stipulate that members "should not" (but not "may not," as is currently the case) provide incentive-based compensation in international student recruiting.

It recommends that the association recognize a ban on commission-based international recruitment as being a “best practice,” while also recommending that it consider adopting mandatory practices for institutions that choose to work with third-party agents regardless. These practices would fall under three areas -- institutional accountability, transparency and integrity – and could include requirements to disclose the terms of relationships with agents to students and families and to establish “an adequate feedback loop to monitor that students receive the services they were promised during recruitment.”

The report also emphasizes the need for colleges working with agents to abide by relevant federal and state laws and regional accreditation standards, which speak to issues such as institutional oversight of third parties working on behalf of an institution and ethical recruitment and admission.

“We don’t think this [commission-based recruitment] is a path that institutions should pursue,” Philip Ballinger, the chair of the commission and assistant vice president for enrollment and director of admissions at the University of Washington, said in an interview. “However, if they pursue it, in order to ensure the welfare of students and also the welfare of institutions, they’re going to need to be very intentional on transparency and institutional responsibility, etc., and so we spell that out.”

If the panel's recommendations are ultimately adopted by NACAC’s board and membership, it will represent a significant shift for the organization, which has historically objected to commission-based recruitment altogether. Indeed, the genesis of the commission can be traced to a 2011 proposal by the NACAC board to clarify that the association’s ban on commission-based recruitment in its Statement of Principles of Good Practice applied equally to domestic and overseas recruitment, a proposal that attracted more than 300 public comments and prompted the board to form the commission.

A key challenge for NACAC is that the use of commission-based agents has been growing rapidly, as many cash-strapped institutions anxious to increase international enrollments have ignored NACAC's ban. But within NACAC, many members -- even those who are at institutions where presidents or other administrators have opted to use agents -- have spoken out repeatedly against paying anyone based on commission.

Is Compensation the Problem?

The issue of colleges paying agents per student enrolled has been deeply divisive, fueled by concerns about the potential for abuse when profit is part of the student recruitment process. Members of the commission could not reach consensus on whether incentive-based compensation is to blame for abuses such as misrepresentations by agents to students and institutions, though the report states that the majority of commissioners believed that the payment model "tends to compound the likelihood of such problems occurring." 

Certainly, there have been many abuses involving incentive compensation in the for-profit sector in the U.S. The federal Higher Education Act bans incentive-based recruitment for domestic students, a fact that many admissions professionals cite in arguing that the same prohibition in place to protect domestic students should be extended to protect students abroad.

Others argue that commission-based recruitment is a well-established practice in countries that the U.S. competes with in attracting international students (including Australia and the United Kingdom) and that American colleges must embrace it or otherwise be left behind. Inside Higher Ed's 2012 survey found that 18 percent of admissions officers at four-year public colleges, and 22 percent of those at private colleges, say their institutions hire agents on commission to recruit international students.  

The text of the NACAC report suggests that commission members expressed strong and differing opinions – no surprise given the diverse composition of the membership – with a majority of members maintaining concerns about the practice. However, the report acknowledges that there are indeed examples of institutions that seem to be using commissioned agents "responsibly and demonstrably for the good of the students they serve."

Throughout, the report is emphatic in placing the onus for ethical recruitment and support of international students on the institution. It states that the use of commissioned agents should not be seen as a way to recruit students "on the cheap," but rather argues that "the need for comprehensive oversight, transparency, and student support requires an investment that is non-trivial, and that must be accounted for in order for enrollment of international students to be effective." 

Otherwise, the report emphasizes the risks not only to students but also to institutions, in light of relevant laws and accreditation standards. While student welfare is the primary concern, "if we look to the potential risk to institutions it’s really quite profound," Ballinger said. "I think that truth be told, most of our members are not aware of some of the institutional risks that could be associated with this practice if it is not overseen carefully and quality-controlled."

Even with all the caution flags, proponents of working with commissioned agents may welcome the NACAC commission's report, as it proposes lifting the current ban on the practice. Norm Peterson, a member of the NACAC commission and also a member of the Board of Directors for the American International Recruitment Council, an association that certifies agents that meet its standards, said he saw “real synergy between where this report is coming down and the mission and programs of AIRC."

“While my own view of commissioned agent work is a little bit more positive than the report reads, I think that a report that proposes caution to institutions and suggests some guidelines that institutions need to follow in order to use this mechanism correctly is a good thing at this time," said Peterson, who is executive director of international programs at Montana State University.  "I would be somewhat concerned if NACAC had given the total green light to this practice."

Robert Watkins, another member of the commission and assistant director of the Graduate and International Admissions Center at the University of Texas at Austin, came at the issue from a more skeptical point of view toward commissioned agents: “I’m not convinced that there are not better ways, whether it’s using one’s own staff or employing agents who work on some sort of contractual basis," rather than on a per-capita model.

But he said that the wording of the commission's recommendation -- specifically, the admonishment that NACAC members "should not" provide incentive compensation based on the numbers of international students enrolled -- satisfies him as a sufficiently strong warning. “ 'Should not' to me is a fairly strong statement, although not mandatory," he said.

“I think it’s the best outcome we could have hoped for," said Liz Reisberg, an independent higher education consultant and a critic of agents (and a blogger for Inside Higher Ed). "Given how controversial the agent phenomenon is, and how many special interests are involved, it’s a bit of a minefield, and I think it’s hopeful that NACAC hasn’t backed away entirely. This isn’t what I would have hoped for" -- she would have preferred a total ban on commissioned recruiting -- "but I think it’s the best we could have expected."

The report's conclusion emphasizes that the international recruitment environment is "dynamic, not static" and argues that "NACAC must engage the reality of commissioned agency in international contexts if it wishes to promote change." The association's board is expected to take up the commission's final report at its meeting later this month. If the board accepts the recommendations it will likely propose a measure for the NACAC Assembly to take up at its September conference in Toronto. 

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Elizabeth Redden

Elizabeth Redden, Senior Reporter, covers general higher education topics, religion and higher education, and international higher education for Inside Higher Ed. She has more than a decade of experience as an education journalist. She holds an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing from Columbia University.

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