US institutions are a regular presence at international agent conferences
Agent commission debate reopens in the USA

The USA's higher education sector has reopened the debate on the use of commission payments for agent recruitment of overseas students, after accreditation body The Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) proposed to ban the practice.

MSCHE, which has accreditation oversight of universities in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, has drafted a new policy that explicitly prohibits incentive payments to overseas agents.


The proposal comes despite a shift in the opposite direction by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (Nacac) over recent years, which voted to amend its Statement of Principles of Good Practice (SPGP) to permit the use of commission payments to overseas agents in 2013.


The proposed MSCHE draft states that the US Department of Education prohibits incentive compensation for domestic students participating in Title IV programmes, and continues, "The Commission applies the same prohibition to all MSCHE accredited and candidate institutions regardless of their participation in Title IV and whether recruitments are domestic or international students."


The wording represents a significant change from current document, which specifically states that the compensation policy does not apply to the recruitment of international students.


New York and Pennsylvania are the second- and sixth-largest host states of international students in the USA, according to the most recent Open Doors report on international student enrolments at higher education institutions from the Institute for International Education (IIE).


Although the use of commission or incentives is only illegal for the recruitment of domestic students in the USA, MSCHE President Elizabeth H. Sibolski, told Inside Higher Education that the accrediting body believed that the principles underlying that regulation should apply to all students equally.


"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," she said in a written statement to the publication. "We have a number of institutions that engage in facilitated international recruitment activities under a variety of structures."


Bridge Education Group last year commissioned a survey to canvass attitudes towards agents among American universities and to gauge how much agent-based recruitment had increased since the landmark Nacac decision.


In a statement sent to StudyTravel Magazine, Jean-Marc Alberola, President of Bridge, said, "Given that we don't currently have government regulation on the use of agents in international student recruitment, and our government takes two different views (the Department of Commerce in favour and the State Department opposed) organisations like NACAC and AIRC are playing a key role in articulating best practices, principles and ethical guidelines.  


"The best thing we can do is have open and transparent dialogue, identify best practices, and educate the marketplace. This is what is happening and why the pace of agency adoption is growing.  According to our research, approximately one third of U.S. universities currently engage directly with agents and/or via intermediaries such as pathway providers."


Jean-Marc suggested that any change of policy could be damaging to international student recruitment by USA institutions at an important juncture.


"One key takeaway of the research is that the practice in the U.S., for many, is still largely in its infancy - we have a lot to discuss and learn. U.S. universities cannot achieve the global presence they require to build their brand and recruit international students without agents.  Often-cited alternatives such as international student fairs, provide, quite frankly, a dismal return on investment.


"Not engaging with agents at this critical time - when we are facing what appears to be the end of a 10-year run of growth in international student enrolments - is a huge mistake. The U.S. is losing market share to other countries and our international student numbers as a percent of total enrolments is lower (4.7 per cent) than the UK, Canada and Australia. These statistics are prior to the 'Trump slump' and the U.S. dollar at a 14-year high."


Lindsay Mathers Addington, Associate Director of International Initiatives at NACAC, told StudyTravel Magazine that the association had contacted MSCHE to ensure it was aware of the most recent reports and resources on the topic.


NACAC is in the process of reviewing its own SPGP this year, and the draft policy includes a section on the use of commissioned agents. Lindsay confirmed the association was working towards maximising transparency in the international student recruitment process. "One of the main elements is a focus on transparency so that international students and families can make informed decisions about who they work with through the college transition process."


In response to a debate on the issue in the USA, including accusations that agents will promote the highest commission partners and don't always act in the students' interests, a number of agents have contacted StudyTravel Magazine to defend practices in the sector


Marcela Amaral, Product Director at Brazilian agency IE Intercâmbio, said, "We do not believe that an agent's commission creates any kind of conflict of interest when consulting with a student. If we start sending students to one particular school because of the amount of commission paid, we will eventually have issues with students that are not fit for that school and then they will cost us much more money than the commission we got. A student complaining in any market is harmful to everyone involved, especially the agent."


The proposal is available for comment by MSCHE-accredited institutions until April 17, and if approved is scheduled to come into effect in June.



By Matthew Knott

News Editor