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DENVER -- A growing number of colleges and universities are using commissioned agents to recruit international students nearly three years after the National Association for College Admission Counseling amended its policies to permit -- but not endorse -- the practice among its member institutions.

Thirty-seven percent of U.S. institutions report using agents in international student recruiting, according to survey data commissioned by Bridge Education Group, an intensive English and pathway provider, and released Wednesday at the NAFSA: Association of International Educators conference.

The data, collected by the Austria-based consulting company StudentMarketing, are derived from a survey of 131 U.S. higher education institutions, of which 53 percent were public colleges or universities and 35 percent private. The remaining 12 percent of respondents were community colleges or private ESL/pathway providers.

Researchers also surveyed 343 recruiting agencies from 64 countries, among other research methods.

The main finding from the Bridge/StudentMarketing survey -- that 37 percent of U.S. institutions are using agents -- mirrors the newest data on the subject from NACAC, which likewise found a 37 percent agent usage rate among its survey respondents in 2015, up from 30 percent the year before. Data from a September 2014 Inside Higher Ed survey of admissions officers conducted in conjunction with Gallup one year after the NACAC policy change found that 19 percent of universities were using commissioned agents for international student recruitment, and another 19 percent were at that point considering it.

Agent usage among U.S. institutions has previously been in the 20-30 percent range, said Eddie West, the director of international initiatives for NACAC. "But there has been an uptick."

The Agent Debate

The use of commissioned agents in international recruitment has been controversial in the U.S., where federal financial aid law prohibits incentive compensation in the recruitment of domestic students. Proponents of agency-based recruitment argue that it provides a cost-effective way for universities to expand their international reach and that it can be done ethically if proper quality controls are in place.

Opponents of the practice argue that a student's interest is not best served when an agent stands to earn a commission for placing a student at a particular institution, and that working with agents increases the risk of application fraud.

More than 70 percent of institutions responding to the Bridge/StudentMarketing survey expressed concerns about possible fraud. Among institutions that were not currently working with agencies, the top three reasons cited were a lack of trust toward agents, the reputational risk posed by agents paid on commission and financial reasons (the commission being an undesired extra cost).

The survey found, however, that 12 percent of those institutions that don’t work directly with agents report working with third-party English as a second language or pathway providers that contract with agents to recruit students on their behalf.

Overall, U.S. institutions that work with agents report that an average of 22 percent of their international students are recruited through agencies. The average number of agent partners per institution is 33.

The agents who were surveyed also reported growth in their number of U.S. university partners. Eighty-one percent of agents are paid on commission, 3 percent on a retainer fee and 5 percent received "other" forms of compensation. Eleven percent said they were not remunerated by the universities.

NACAC's Numbers and the Topic of Transparency

In a separate session at the NAFSA conference on Wednesday, West, NACAC's director of international initiatives, presented a "sneak peek" of data from the association's forthcoming "State of College Admission" report for the year 2015.

The association surveyed higher education institutions on quality assurance practices they have in place vis-à-vis agents. Of the responding institutions that reported using agents, 34 percent require agencies to be certified or trained by an external institution. Eighty-six percent require agencies to enter into a formal contract with the institution and 70 percent said they regularly assess outcomes of students recruited by agencies.

Only 48 percent of institutions conduct in-person training sessions with their agents, and 42 percent require recommendations from other U.S. institutions. Thirty-eight percent provide agencies with a training manual.

The NACAC data show that just 7 percent of surveyed institutions list their agency partners on a "student-facing" website. West noted the contrast with Australia, where universities are required by law to list their agency partners on their websites, and the United Kingdom, where many institutions do as a matter of course.

"Here’s a good example of an area where I think the U.S. has a bit to learn from our colleagues in other countries," said West. In amending the language in its Statement of Principles of Good Practice to permit universities to work with international recruitment agents, NACAC simultaneously emphasized the need for institutions that choose to go that route to ensure accountability, integrity and transparency.

Jean-Marc Alberola, the president of Bridge, said the issue of transparency was a theme in the Bridge/StudentMarketing research. "One of the key pieces that came up doing this research was the word 'transparency': we hear transparency mentioned over and over again," he said.

Asked whether institutions should disclose the names of the agencies they work with on their websites, 29 percent of respondents to the Bridge/StudentMarketing survey said they should, while 9 percent said they should disclose agency partners only upon request. Thirty-five percent said disclosure should be optional and 24 percent said institutions should not be required to disclose their agency partners to the public. (Four percent chose other: the percentages do not add up to 100 due to rounding.)

A main objection to disclosure was a proprietary one, specifically a resistance to disclosing names of agency partners to competing universities. The survey report notes that disclosing commission rates and compensation models is further "seen by many to equate to a disclosure of trade secrets."

The Bridge/StudentMarketing survey report says, "One of the key reasons cited for the need for transparency is to protect students who might otherwise believe that the agent is an impartial adviser, while in fact a commercial relationship exists that can influence an agent's recommendations. Others suggest the commercial relationships between institutions and agencies is common knowledge and even expected."

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