The National Security Agency wasn’t the only D.C. area entity dealing with fallout from leaks to the press last week.  While it didn’t receive the same publicity or have the same level of intrigue and serious implications for American society, NACAC was forced to release the report of its Commission on International Student Recruitment early after InsideHigherEd obtained a draft and published an article about the Commission’s findings.  It wasn’t exactly the Pentagon Papers, but NACAC had to speed-up its roll-out of the report to members and other stakeholders.

A Chronicle of Higher Education article on the report’s release characterized the report as weak and as attempting “to mollify everyone,” focusing on the Commission’s recommendation to change the language in the Statement of Principles of Good Practice prohibiting the payment of commissions to international recruiters from mandatory to a best practice.

I think that criticism is unfair, but I am hardly objective.  As a member of the NACAC Board, I was one of the driving forces for the Commission approach, arguing that a simple prohibition as originally proposed was an easy but wrong solution to an issue that is complex and in the words of the report, “dynamic.”  I think the Commission brought together a lot of good minds to study the morass of issues surrounding recruitment of international students, but the expectation that it would “solve” the problem is naïve.

What the Commission Report doesn’t attempt to do is address the ethical complexities that arise out of the use of agents compensated by commission to recruit international students.  That, of course, is exactly what I find most interesting.

Let’s try to sort through the issues.  First and foremost is that more American colleges and universities are recruiting students internationally.  Much of that is economically driven as colleges look for revenue, but it is also the case that bringing students to the United States from around the world is important educationally and also in the national interest.

Recruiting internationally is a challenge for many institutions.  Not only is it expensive to send staff members abroad, but getting a foothold in the international marketplace requires a network of contacts and knowledge of the culture.  A number of institutions have attempted to address these challenges by outsourcing recruitment to agents located overseas.

The use of agents is not in itself inherently wrong.  What is questionable from an ethical standpoint is that many agents are paid on a per-head commission basis, a practice that violates the NACAC Statement of Principles of Good Practice and is also illegal in the United States.  Given that per-head compensation of agents has been long-standing practice in many countries, is the NACAC/U.S. position morally right or arrogant and culturally naive?

A complicating factor is that in most parts of the world there is not a school-based college counseling infrastructure, although there seems to be movement in that direction.  If NACAC were to prohibit colleges from using agents (per-head) without there being legitimate alternatives for students to get information about American colleges, then it harms member institutions trying to do the right thing and perhaps also harms students. Any ethical principle is worthless if it is also impractical.

(It is not the case that there are no alternatives.  EducationUSA, a branch of the State Department, operates advising centers in 140 countries dispensing information about American higher education.  EducationUSA does not represent particular institutions and also does not work with agents who charge commissions.)

The essential issue is whether there is something fundamentally wrong with an agent being paid on a per-head commission basis.  There is always a tension in college admissions between counseling and sales; does per-head compensation tip the scales?  If I am being paid by a college for every student who applies or enrolls, is my advice to a student based on what is best for the student or what is best for me? 

Clearly there are agents who are ethical despite being paid per head, but the world of agents is rife with questionable and corrupt practices, from double dipping (accepting payment from both students and institutions) to conflict of interest to misrepresentation to falsification of transcripts and writing essays for students.  Commission-based compensation may not be responsible for these abuses, but it creates the conditions for them to breed and spread and poison the good work that is out there.

I hope that NACAC will not abandon the principle that payment of commissions based on the number of students recruited or enrolled is wrong.  The principle that admission officers and recruiters should be professionals and not salespeople led to NACAC’s founding. The commitment to ethical professional practice, while under siege on a number of fronts, remains the bedrock of our profession.  The federal prohibition on per head compensation for students receiving federal financial aid is telling, and the experience with the predatory recruiting practices utilized by many for-profit institutions in the U.S.  after the Bush Administration eased restrictions for a number of “safe harbors” should reassure us that per head compensation is dangerous and problematic, no matter where it occurs.

There are certainly those who argue that the train has already left the station with regard to agents and per-head compensation, including the American International Recruitment Council (AIRC), which argues that training and certification of agents is the better path.  That may be an interim step, but I don’t buy the argument that it’s the best we can hope for.  The fact that something is an accepted practice doesn’t mean that it’s best practice.  The fact that people commit bank robbery doesn’t mean that outlawing bank robbery is futile.

Saying that NACAC shouldn’t abandon its principle doesn’t mean that simply outlawing use of agents in its current form is the solution.  As the Commission correctly recognized, the issue is complex and dynamic.  Real reform requires developing legitimate recruiting alternatives for colleges that want to do the right thing for international students.  NACAC is not going to solve this issue alone, and I hope the Commission report will begin a discussion with groups like the College Board, NAFSA, AACRAO, IECA, HECA, and AIRC on a new framework for international recruiting, a framework that puts ethical principles like institutional oversight, accountability, transparency, and integrity at the forefront.

My hope is that the work of the Commission is the beginning of a larger discussion about the landscape of international recruiting, and my dream is that NACAC will serve as landscape architect, bringing simplicity and even beauty to that landscape.