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The Recruitment-Agent Debate Goes Another Round


The Chronicle of Higher Education - July 12, 2012 - by Karin Fischer

Denver — “My perspective,” said James L. Miller, past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, “is we’re not going to say that agents are a good thing. This is not a desirable approach.”

Mr. Miller was speaking of the use of commissioned agents to recruit foreign students. Under his watch, the board of the admissions organization, which is known as NACAC, first proposed banning the practice, then, last fall, instead appointed a panel to examine the issue.

Mr. Miller, a member of that panel, had come to the annual meeting here of the Overseas Association for College Admission Counseling—an affiliate organization of NACAC made up of high-school counselors and college admissions officers, both in the United States and abroad—to discuss the group’s progress thus far.

In the interest of full disclosure, I had come to Denver, too, in part to talk with OACAC members about what has come to be colloquially called the agent debate. The group’s members are on the front lines of this issue, one of the most contentious I have ever written about (and I covered the debate over weapons of mass destruction and the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq). OACAC-ites might, I thought, offer a clear and unambiguous take.

Instead, the topic seems to divide the group just as it does the rest of higher education.

“I really do believe there’s a profit motive,” said John Evans, OACAC’s past president and another commission member. While the NACAC panel is looking specifically at the practice of paying agents a per-student fee, one college-admissions director told me after the session that she was opposed to using paid recruiters overseas, no matter how they are compensated. If colleges use agents, “then I think they’re after the money,” she said. “They might as well register as for-profits and pay taxes.”

On the other hand, a number of institutions at Thursday morning’s session acknowledged that they use paid recruiters. “It’s the university’s responsibility to vet and educate agents,” one man said. “It should start at home.”

Another college administrator complained that officials at some Education USA offices—the State Department’s network of overseas advising centers—have hesitated to work with his institution because it uses agents. (The Department of State prohibits working with paid recruiters.)

Annalee Nissenholtz, a U.S.-based education consultant, said she knew of several colleges that worked with agents in China and elsewhere because they lacked the budget to recruit on their own. “Some are slimy, some are good,” she said of commission-based recruiters.

Jamie E. Marcus, director of admission at the University of Maine at Farmington, was sitting next to me during the session. “I’m just confused,” he said at its conclusion.

Mr. Miller allowed that he is, too. The NACAC commission will hold its second meeting in October and does not expect to make recommendations to the organization’s board until next spring. While he said he could not imagine the group’s endorsing the use of per-head recruiters, it’s possible that NACAC could stop short of calling for a ban but instead require member colleges that do use them to abide by certain policies, such as making their agent contracts publicly available. (And NACAC, of course, is far from the only education association with a stake in the agent debate.)

In explaining his thinking, Mr. Miller reached for a colorful quote from President Lyndon B. Johnson, speaking of FBI director at the time, J. Edgar Hoover: “It’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.”