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TORONTO – The Assembly of the National Association for College Admission Counseling on Saturday voted 152-47 to approve a change to its ethical standards permitting the use of commissioned agents in the recruitment of students outside the United States. Federal law bars the use of commissions in recruiting American students.

The issue of per-capita compensation in international student recruiting has been deeply controversial, but it was clear at the Assembly meeting that for NACAC, at least, the debate has moved beyond a straight yea or nay on the practice. Rather, the discussion at NACAC's annual conference focused on the specific language of the policy change and the implications for NACAC member institutions that are based outside the U.S.

The newly amended Section I.A.3 of NACAC’s Statement of Principles of Good Practice stipulates that member institutions will “not offer or accept any reward or remuneration from a secondary school, college, university, agency or organization for placement or recruitment of students in the United States. Members who choose to use incentive-based agents when recruiting students outside the U.S. will ensure accountability, transparency and integrity.” The version of the amendment that passed was -- save for a minor change -- the version that was proposed by the association's Admission Practices Committee, which in turn had based its proposal on the recommendations of NACAC's Commission on International Student Recruitment. The commission released its recommendations this summer after nearly two years of deliberation.

Members of NACAC’s overseas affiliate, the Overseas Association for College Admission Counseling, had proposed an alternative motion with language non-specific to the U.S. The language it proposed would have permitted a member institution to work with incentivized agents only when operating outside its “domestic market” and -- contrary to the version put forward by the Admission Practices committee -- would have allowed overseas universities to use commissioned agents to recruit international students enrolled in U.S. high schools. (Neither of the proposed motions would have allowed the use of commissioned agents to recruit U.S. citizens, whether they're physically located in the U.S. or abroad.)

"There’s an asymmetry in that the original NACAC proposal suggests that it’s O.K. to come to the U.K. as a U.S. institution and use commission-based agents, but the same in the other direction is not allowed," said Paul Teulon, director of admissions at King's College London.

"Our language is inclusive," said Ray Marx, a past president of OACAC. "We are here in Toronto, Canada to celebrate NACAC's global reach and interests. Are we to say that international students outside the doors of this convention center should be treated differently than those across the border in Buffalo? As we were reminded in the opening [keynote] session by Thomas Friedman, the world is flat. So is our proposal."

In addressing the Assembly, Philip Ballinger, the chair of NACAC's Commission on International Student Recruitment and assistant vice president for enrollment and director of admissions at the University of Washington, acknowledged that the commission had not discussed the issue of overseas institutions. "The report and recommendations came from what I thought was a very good, deliberate, collegial process of thought and conversation, and it strikes me that this would be out of that stream a little bit," he said of the OACAC proposal. "It strikes me as something that perhaps is important and should be discussed in the same process that was used by the commission and perhaps should not be decided upon in a floor process. I'm just saying I think this requires more deliberate conversation."

Ultimately, the majority of Assembly members agreed, voting to refer the proposed OACAC motion to NACAC committees for further study.

The new policy permitting the use of agents in international recruiting will take effect after a one-year moratorium during which NACAC's Admission Practices and International Advisory Committees will hash out interpretations and implications. Many U.S. colleges have held off on working with agents until NACAC released some guidance on the issue, and some may continue to wait until the association's requirements for transparency, accountability and integrity are clearer. Other institutions, however, have already moved ahead: Inside Higher Ed survey research from 2012 found that about a fifth of four-year institutions then used commissioned agents in international recruiting,  and many more were considering it.

The American International Recruitment Council, an association that certifies agents that meet its standards, commended the NACAC Assembly's decision and expressed eagerness to work with colleges looking to break into the agent business. "AIRC stands ready to work with institutions seeking to understand the implications of adding an agency-based recruitment component to their recruitment practice and supports NACAC’s continued attention to this process," the association said in a statement.

Initially, way back in 2011, NACAC's board had proposed a policy change clarifying that its prohibition on incentive-based recruiting applied in international contexts as well as domestic ones, prompting a storm of public comments and leading the association to form the Commission on International Student Recruitment and, ultimately, reverse course. 

The question of whether abusive practices are more likely to happen when agents are paid on a per-student basis has been at the heart of the debate. Some argue that the fact that an agent has a financial interest in a student landing at a particular institution could lead the agent to put his or her own interests -- rather than the student's -- first. The agent might misrepresent an institution to the student and/or offer help of an overly "hands-on" nature, writing the essay for the applicant or even securing falsified transcripts. There are concerns about a lack of transparency -- does a student even know that the agent has a financial stake in the universities he or she recommends -- and disagreement about the acceptability of "double-dipping," in which agents collect fees from both the student and the institution. Finally, some who oppose the use of agents argue that many universities view them as a shortcut to increasing international enrollments, and tuition revenue, without making the necessary investments to support international students when they actually show up on campus.

Those supporting the use of commissioned agents, on the other hand, argue that it can in fact be done ethically and responsibly, and that contracting with individual agents around the world is the most feasible way for many institutions to expand their global reach  They also point out that for universities in Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom, the practice has long been common and largely uncontroversial.

At Saturday's Assembly meeting, there were no impassioned pleas offering anti-agent perspectives, but a motion to ask the board to commission a "best practices" document -- which passed overwhelmingly -- was framed in terms of preventing abuses.

"There’s a range of behaviors exhibited by these agencies varying from highly ethical to highly unethical," said James Fowler, speaking on behalf of the New England NACAC affiliate, which offered the motion. “Colleges, universities and secondary schools may not be fully aware of the types of unethical behaviors engaged in by such agencies when they enter into such relationships and guidelines are needed to instruct colleges, universities and secondary schools with regards to what to look for when developing relationships."

Such a document, Fowler said, might address such agency practices as charging students for visa processing and pocketing a proportion of scholarship awards.

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