Making Nice

Using commission-based agents in international recruitment has gone from unmentionable to mainstream. At 5th annual conference, a group formed to bring standards to the practice reflects on where it has been and where it's going.

December 6, 2013

MIAMI – The first day of the fifth annual conference of the American International Recruitment Council featured no small share of self-reflection and, yes, some self-congratulation.

In opening panel discussions and in a 19-page written history of the development of the association, which formed in 2008 with the goal of professionalizing and accrediting international recruitment agencies, leaders of AIRC considered the association's next steps now that it has succeeded in largely breaking the taboo on the use of commissioned agents overseas.

The September action on the part of the National Association for College Admission Counseling to amend its standards to permit the use of commissioned agents in international recruitment has changed the terms of the conversation at many institutions. No longer is it whether they can ethically work with agents, but how.

The use of recruitment agents who are paid per-capita commissions had long been frowned upon because of a fear that direct financial incentives could fuel abuses: U.S. law bans the practice outright when it comes to the recruitment of American students. In amending its standards NACAC said that colleges that do choose to hire commissioned agents for international recruiting must ensure accountability, integrity and transparency.

“One of the things that we’ve asked ourselves is if we talk about accountability and integrity and transparency, what do they even mean?” said John Deupree, AIRC’s executive director. “Who should be transparent…. do you want to post your agencies on the website? Do you also want to post how much [money] you’re giving them? There’s a different level of conversation here. Nothing is that simple. Who should be accountable to whom? We believe that simply answering some of these questions and beginning to study them is at the very core of what AIRC is about.”

For instance, a conference session on Thursday on accountability issues delved into complex questions such as how to measure the success of international students who are recruited through agents and whether a college has the right to know a given agent’s sub-agents: in other words, if an institution contracts with an agent who in turn contracts with other agents (sub-agents), does that institution have the right to know who each of those sub-agents are and to meet and train their staff?

How does the agent train his or her sub-agents? And how does this translate to the prospective student experience? If a student has a bad experience with a sub-agent, will the agent that contracted that sub-agent -- and the institution that contracted that agent -- ever even know? (And, to make things even more complicated, as one participant in the discussion noted, there might not just be one layer of agent and sub-agent, but the subs could have subs could have subs. “You don’t know how far it goes.”)

In his talk, Deupree emphasized that the international recruitment field is dynamic. “We constantly run into something new. We have lead generators, web portals, marketing support teams, pathways, sub-agencies," he said. "We are constantly forced to ask … what is an agency?”

At the same time that leaders of the association discussed future directions, they also took the occasion of  AIRC's five-year anniversary as an opportunity to look back. The aforementioned 19-page history, written by the founding president, Mitch Leventhal, and founding vice president, Josep Rota, describes the emergence of an organization at a time when the practice of commissioned recruitment “was not well-understood, and in fact was largely shunned, within the U.S. higher education community.”

It reads as a history of a battle written by the victors. “AIRC Members are Vindicated” is the subhead for the section about the NACAC change in standards: “NACAC’s change in position is the culmination of an eight-year campaign fought largely from outside of that organization, by institutions which were largely longtime NACAC members but who were committed to accelerating professionalization of the industry, and represents a major vindication of those institutions, as well as the AIRC concept," the document states.

The written history is candid about the contentious relationship that AIRC has had over the years with some of the other national higher education associations, NACAC included. For example, the report notes that AIRC retained two separate law firms that found that NACAC might be in violation of antitrust laws if it excluded universities that use commissioned agents overseas from its domestic recruitment fairs. (For his part, David Hawkins, NACAC's director of public policy and research, said that legal opinions differed as to whether AIRC’s argument would stand up in court, and added that the alleged potential antitrust issues had no bearing on NACAC’s deliberations on the issue.)

Yet the tone Thursday at AIRC was not only conciliatory, it was even eager in a "let's-be-friends" kind of way, as speakers and participants repeatedly complimented NACAC's commitment to safeguarding prospective students and offered their ideas for ways in which the two associations can collaborate going forward. (NACAC's director of international initiatives, Eddie West, also spoke on a panel Thursday afternoon about NACAC's revised standards and the implications for AIRC.)

“We’re working for the same thing now; there’s no contradiction between the objectives of NACAC and the objectives of AIRC," said Leventhal, who's the vice chancellor for global affairs at the State University of New York System. "That chapter has closed; AIRC has matured. It has achieved a major objective and we have, it appears, a partner in NACAC, which is great news.”

"We believe that AIRC has been and should continue to be recognized as the singular organization responding to the call for greater accountability and transparency," Deupree said. "But how do we do that? That’s our challenge for the coming year.”

About 230 participants are registered to attend the AIRC annual conference, which continues through Saturday. 


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