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NACAC Commission Makes Its Recommendation on Commissioned Agents; Here’s Where I Stand

Mark Sklarow

by Mark Sklarow, CEO, Independent Educational Consultants Association

For several years I have helped lead the effort to educate the public, admission professionals, and others about the inherent ethical dilemmas caused by the use of commissioned agents by schools and colleges seeking international applicants.

Yesterday, Inside Higher Ed obtained a draft version of the NACAC Commission’s report and reported those findings today. While the recommendations (which will go to NACAC’s Board and membership for a final determination) are not what I may have wanted, I believe the Commission reached good, principled, understandable recommendations.

First, NACAC will maintain a ban on member institutions’ making incentive-based payments for domestic recruitment.

NACAC has indicated a ban on such payment for international applicants is a “best practice,” meaning such a ban is the preference, but not a mandatory one. For institutions that choose to go against this best practice and employ incentive-based arrangements for international recruitment, they will be required to implement a series of strict requirements for transparency, integrity, and institutional accountability.

“We don’t think this [commission-based recruitment] is a path that institutions should pursue,” Philip Ballinger, the chair of the commission and assistant vice president for enrollment and director of admissions at the University of Washington, said in an interview. “However, if they pursue it, in order to ensure the welfare of students and also the welfare of institutions, they’re going to need to be very intentional on transparency and institutional responsibility, etc., and so we spell that out.”

I concur. We believe that over three-quarters of U.S.-based higher education institutions have looked at the perils of commissioned recruiting and rejected it. Now, those who seek to continue will need to ensure that students and families understand the financial incentives that underlie what had looked on its surface as a counseling relationship. Today, hundreds of independent educational consultants are opening practices around the world, operating free of financial incentives from colleges, serving only the best interest of students. Universities seeking highly qualified applicants today have many alternatives to paying commissions. And these alternative paths are growing, and come with far fewer ethical encumbrances than commission payments.

The final recommendations may not be everything I would have sought, but I endorse them and hope these vigorous standards will ensure that students are protected as they seek to study in the United States.


2 Responses to NACAC Commission Makes Its Recommendation on Commissioned Agents; Here’s Where I Stand

  1. Marc McHugo says:

    As an agent based in France, I’m disappointed by this stance, which I would qualify as a little simplistic and wholly opportunistic.

    Simplistic, because I have long been exposed to the debate regarding best practice for international student recruitment, specifically regarding the use of agents and I would suggest that things aren’t quite as black or white. For the NACAC to come out and claim that it is best for universities not to use any agents at all, effectively imposing a blanket ban, is a bit like saying we should ban all plastic surgeons because some are known to put financial gain ahead of patients’ health.

    Opportunistic because NACAC’s actions are not as black and white as its stance. I would have far more respect for this vision if universities were effectively banned from working with any agents at all. While I wouldn’t agree with the reasoning behind that decision, at least it would be an approach that is consistent with the panel’s beliefs and we would have no choice but to respect that. As things stand, however, universities are still free to benefit from the help of agents while still considering them in a negative light. “We’ll turn a blind eye but voice our disapproval”… How unethical is that ?

    I understand that 3 main concerns are in play here :
    1/ Agents are commission driven and unconcerned by student well-being : While I would recognise that some agents are effectively commission driven and operate in ways that put this industry to shame, I would also argue that hundreds, if not thousands, of agents and consultants operate in a way that ensures students are placed in accordance with their level, objectives, needs and finances. These agents make sure that students have an overall view of the American education system and, if their partner institutions are not suitable, they will either charge a fee in order to help the student go to a university that doesn’t pay commission or will refer these students to external counsellors (IECA counsellors, for example). Rather than reject agents all together, it seems to me that universities should simply take a cautious approach when appointing new agents. My agency, for one, has passed countless tests and accreditation processes and we are thoroughly screened every time we start working with a new partner. In the US, AIRC is an example of how the industry is trying to self-regulate the use of agents.

    2/ Agents operate unethically : Once again, this may be the case for some agents but most are in this business out of passion and have a profound desire to help students reach their goals. The US education system is notoriously complicated for international students – How to apply ? How to prepare admission tests ? How do Americans write essays ? When are the different intakes ? Where will I live ? How will I fund my studies ? How does my education compare with the US system ? These are just some of the questions that we get asked on a daily basis and that need answering for students to have any chance of being successful in applying to a US institution. Not all questions can be answered by university staff, who A/ Don’t have the time to get back to everyone and B/ are unfamiliar with the local and cultural context of international students.

    3/ Agents don’t portray US Education in the right way : A quality agent will make sure that the US education system is portrayed in a complete and accurate fashion. A quality agent will also select which institutions he works with. This may be a controversial stance on things, but I would argue that out of the 4000+ US higher education providers that currently operate, some have very low standards and have very questionnable recruitment tactics. Surely, we are doing the world a favour by not recruiting for these institutions and are helping the image of US Education abroad by doing so. Its easy to impose blanket bans on agents, but perhaps it would be worth taking a look at the quality of some of America’s education providers… Although I am very admirative and supportive of AIRC’s mission to distinguish quality agents, my main criticism towards them is that stringeant auditing processes put in place to rate agents are not put in place towards universities and colleges that wish to become member institutions of AIRC. Surely, things should work both ways here.

    To conclude, my response to NCACA is that it would be beneficial to monitor agents (yes, “transparency, integrity and institutional liability” are key). Any efforts that are made to cut out unethical agents, who give our profession a bad name, should be fully supported by all actors within this industry. But simply avoiding the debate by condemning ALL agents and by turning a blind-eye to universities who choose to work with them surely cannot be deemed a worthy stance at all.

  2. Pingback: Commission-Based Recruitment Technically Okay, Says NACAC Commission | Vericant

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