The U.S. Department of State has overstepped its authority in issuing a policy against the use of paid recruiters for overseas students.
That was the charge made during a panel discussion on Friday, the final day of the annual meeting of Nafsa: Association of International Educators.
Mitch Leventhal is a founder of the American International Recruitment Council, or Airc, a group that develops standards of ethical practices and a system for certifying overseas recruiters. Federal law says that government agencies should defer to industry-based standards, unless those standards are illegal or otherwise impractical, Mr. Leventhal said at a session on the pros and cons of working with agents.
So when the State Department issued a 2009 policy directive prohibiting its overseas EducationUSA student-advising centers from forming partnerships or working with recruitment agents paid on a per-student basis, Mr. Leventhal argued, the department was wrongly superseding the authority of Airc, which is registered with the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission as a standards-development organization.
"We're not a professional organization lobbying on behalf of a group. We're not advocating on behalf of agents. We're a standards-setting and regulatory body," Mr. Leventhal said of Airc. He was the group's first president and remains on its Board of Directors.
By setting a policy on agents for its overseas advisers, the State Department is establishing a "de facto standard" and has "directly undermined" Airc's effort, said Mr. Leventhal, who is vice chancellor for global affairs at the State University of New York. Agents hired by his and other institutions are barred from popular overseas EducationUSA fairs.
According to the law, the State Department has to submit a report to the White House Office of Management and Budget explaining why its policy should be followed in place of voluntary industry-set standards, Mr. Leventhal said. He asked whether the State Department had applied for and received a waiver from the White House office.
Reached for a response, Meghann Curtis, deputy assistant secretary for academic programs at the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, said that the department was aware that there is "a lack of consensus" on the use of agents. "Our directive to the State Department-funded EducationUSA centers applies to advisers within our network," she said in a written statement. "To meet the State Department's public-diplomacy mission, EducationUSA provides comprehensive information to international students about the entire range of accredited U.S. colleges, universities, and programs in our effort to help students find the best possible match with their abilities, needs, and interests. Working with commission-based recruiters is inconsistent with this public-diplomacy mission."
A Competitive Disadvantage
While Airc's standards were unanimously approved by its members, there is hardly consensus on the use of paid recruiters, an issue that remains one of the most contentious in international education and admissions circles.
Mr. Leventhal and others who favor the use of agents argue that, by paying and regulating foreign recruiters, American institutions have greater control of the process. (Paying agents to recruit American students is not permitted by federal financial-aid law.)
Agents on the ground can better serve students and their families because they know the culture and are part of the community, supporters of paying agents say. And, they argue, American colleges are put at a competitive disadvantage if they don't hire recruitment agents because they are used so widely by countries like Britain and Australia.
For their part, the State Department and other opponents of the practice say it puts a profit motive ahead of students' interests. It's wrong to restrict student options to colleges that offer monetary incentives, the critics say, and agents chasing commissions could press students to enroll in institutions merely to make a quota. That could harm the reputation of American education abroad, they fear.
A commission organized by the National Association for College Admission Counseling is now examining the issue and will make recommendations on international-student recruitment. The association had considered a proposal to immediately bar its member colleges from using commission-based agents but opted instead to convene a panel.
David Hawkins, the group's director of public policy and research and a panelist at Friday's discussion, said the NACAC committee, which held its first meeting in March, is continuing its deliberations and will meet again formally in October.
The admissions group, he said, had entered into the debate over payments for agents because more and more of its members are recruiting international students.
"We were asked to get involved by our members," Mr. Hawkins said. "Many of our members are being not asked but told by their college presidents to go out and get foreign students."
He added: "This is not theoretical. It is not esoteric. This is a practical debate."