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Another front has opened in the contentious debate over the use of commissioned agents in international student recruitment.

The Middle States Commission on Higher Education has proposed new language for its policies that would prohibit institutions it accredits from using incentive-based compensation in international student recruitment.

The draft policy, if it were to become enacted, could have major business implications for colleges accredited in the mid-Atlantic region and reopens a debate over agent usage that some thought had largely been settled, at least as a matter of practice. As the regional accreditor, Middle States has oversight over virtually every university in its region, which encompasses Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, plus Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Many colleges in this region (and elsewhere in the United States) use agents who are paid in part based on commission.

Federal law prohibits universities from paying incentive-based compensation for the recruitment of students who are eligible for federal financial aid programs funded through Title IV. Although the legal prohibition does not apply to international students who are not eligible for federal financial aid, Middle States' president, Elizabeth H. Sibolski, said the accrediting agency "believes that the principles underlying that regulation should apply to all students equally. Thus, our policy would apply in all cases."

"The intent of the draft policy is not to end or limit international recruitment nor is it intended to prohibit the use of international recruitment agencies," Sibolski said in a written statement. "We have a number of institutions that engage in facilitated international recruitment activities under a variety of structures."

But proponents of agency-based recruitment are already pushing back, saying the proposed policy change would force colleges in the Middle States region to change their recruiting practices and lead to drops in international student enrollments. More established in Australia and the United Kingdom, the use of commission-based agents in international recruitment is still a relatively new practice in the U.S. Fans of the model say that contracting with agents abroad provides a cost-effective way for even small, cash-strapped colleges to recruit worldwide and that it can be done ethically, with the right controls and oversight in place. Opponents say that agents who earn per-capita commissions for referring students to a certain set of institutions cannot be trusted to have students’ best interests at heart and suggest that working with recruitment agents can increase the risk of application fraud.

That said, the agent debate, as it’s known, has been quiet for several years now, and people with various views on the practice expressed surprise that the issue had re-emerged four years after the National Association for College Admission Counseling voted to lift its prohibition on the practice. The vote came after a task force created by NACAC spent two years deliberating on the issue.

“I just was very surprised, because why would Middle States want to fight a fight that was more or less put to rest several years ago?” asked Mitch Leventhal, a professor of professional practice and entrepreneurship in the School of Education at the State University of New York at Albany and a leading proponent of agency-based recruitment. Leventhal is founding president of the American International Recruitment Council, a professional organization focused on recruitment, which screens and certifies international recruitment agencies.

"It makes me wonder whether they are completely unaware of everything that transpired with NACAC and all the deliberations. Maybe they simply didn’t know about that, and somebody has decided to get aggressive for some peculiar reason, but since 2013, since NACAC’s reversal, many additional institutions have started working with agents and committed resources to it. So there are a lot of institutions that have a lot of stake here. I wonder if Middle States even has an awareness of how many of their own institutions are deeply involved in this now. If they think it’s one or two, they’re mistaken," Leventhal said.

Two surveys released last year both found that 37 percent of U.S. universities reported using agents, an increase from previous surveys, including one conducted by Inside Higher Ed in 2014, which found the proportion of U.S. universities that reported using agents to be in the 20-30 percent range. Mike Finnell, the executive director of AIRC, said that the association has 57 member colleges that are accredited by Middle States.

Among those institutions is the State University of New York at Old Westbury. Mary Marquez Bell, the university’s vice president for enrollment services, said that if Middle States’ draft policy were enacted, she would lose enrollments and would have to "rethink my entire strategy on international recruitment. I am a small campus with a small international student enrollment -- we average anywhere between 40 and 70 international students any given year -- and I would have to reconsider how I would recruit these students, because I don’t have counselors or the agent equivalent of staff in these different countries," she said.

Bell questioned why Middle States would restrict the practice of paying agents commissions. “It’s not illegal, it’s not unprofessional, it’s a practice that’s commonly used, it’s a practice that even more U.S. institutions are asking about,” she said.

“We don’t see the reason as to why this is being questioned. It hasn’t been clarified. There’s nothing to make us want to change the way we are conducting this business right now.”

Opponents of the use of commissioned agents were also surprised by the development, but happily so.

“It’s excellently shocking,” said Philip G. Altbach, a research professor at Boston College and founding director of the Center for International Higher Education there (and a blogger for Inside Higher Ed). “Anything that weakens the agent infrastructure and the legitimacy of the concept of agents is to me a good thing, because I don’t think that’s how the business of mobility should be done. Also, anything that has the effect of putting a brake on the dishonest practices of a lot -- not all, but a certain number -- of agents is a good thing.”

“Agents represent institutions and not students, and agents represent those institutions which are paying them and are not in a position, if they’re kind of traditional agents, to recommend the best possible university or college for the student; they recommend the university or college which is providing them the money,” Altbach said of his longstanding opposition to the commissioned-agent model.

“That’s the underlying problem to me. Plus, students and potential students overseas are not only getting kind of a skewed picture of American higher education, but they’re paying, often, a lot of money for services, which I think the universities should be providing through good internet arrangements, through stronger advisement procedures and so on. And there’s lots of evidence to show that, again, not all but some agents collude or help in falsifying essays and exams.”

Liz Reisberg, an independent international higher education consultant and another critic of agent usage (and another blogger for Inside Higher Ed) said she was pleased by Middle States’ proposal but expects there to be significant pushback. She's not optimistic it will become policy.

“I think this is in defense of the integrity of higher education,” Reisberg said. “It’s one thing to subcontract out your bookstore; it’s another thing to subcontract out your admissions operation overseas. There’s just too much at stake, and it’s just not in the interest of the university long term to be doing this, and it’s unfortunate that there are strong financial incentives to continue to do it -- which is why I’m not so confident that this will be successful, although I hope it is.”

The draft policy is currently open for public comment. Richard Pokrass, a spokesman for Middle States, said the agency will review all comments received and make any revisions deemed necessary. "The revised policies, once approved by the commission, will then be placed on an electronic ballot for voting by the chief executive officers of MSCHE's member institutions," Pokrass said -- an action that would likely occur after the commission’s June 22 meeting.

“My recommendation to Middle States would be if this is a concern of theirs, they should encourage their members to adhere to professional standards that have been developed by organizations like NACAC and AIRC,” said Leventhal, AIRC’s founding president. “They should encourage them to join organizations like AIRC. They should be encouraging them to contract only with entities that are AIRC certified, where there are consequences for misbehavior and so forth. They should also encourage them to be transparent concerning agents with whom they have contracts.”

If the proposed policy does go into effect as written, Leventhal said, institutions will have to cancel contracts they’ve signed with agencies. “A lot of the money that’s been invested in these recruitment strategies will be essentially lost. Institutions who already are fearful of having diminished applications as a result of recent Trump administration policies are going to be even more hampered in their efforts.”

“Nationally,” he said, “if Middle States does this, there’s the possibility that other accreditors might follow suit, or they might not. If they do, of course more institutions are hampered. If they don’t, then institutions accredited by Middle States aren’t able to operate with the same advantages as those whose accreditors have more foresight.”

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