Imagine a world without education agents (if you can)Agents Are the Problem”, about a bizarre provision in the THRIVE (Training in High Demand Roles to Improve Veteran Employment) Act that prohibits United States higher education institutions from paying commissions for international students, none of whom are veterans of US wars, Philip Altbach and Liz Reisberg present a compelling and updated case against the use of education agents.
As expected, some of the usual self-interested suspects quickly circled the wagons on social media. One éminence grise snorted contemptuously: “Same old song from the same old singers. So out of step with the realities of institutional constraints, as well as the realities of international business.”
In other words, get with the programme – as if there are no feasible alternatives to the use of education agents as a hotly debated tool in the international student recruitment arsenal.
Most institutions are biding their time, cautiously optimistic that this legislative anomaly will be fixed soon. Hoping for the best but preparing for the worst, some US colleges and universities have already begun notifying their (agent) partners to follow the new law so as not to suffer the (financial) consequences of non-compliance.
For example, one state university sent this note to its global partners: “…in an effort to comply with the new THRIVE Act enacted by the United States Congress in June 2021 and its potential impact on our Veteran student population, we regret to inform you that [we] will be cancelling all current recruitment agent contracts effective November 15, 2021. Formal cancellation notification, as required by your current contract, will be emailed to you next week.”
This is the first of many such shoes to drop until that pesky provision is removed.
Meanwhile, back in Washington, DC, the major association players in the US higher education establishment have been burning the midnight oil trying to correct this glaring and costly oversight in the THRIVE Act, which is supposed to have nothing to do with international students.
In a recent email blast, NAFSA: Association of International Educators linked the US Veterans Day (11 November) with this issue, informing its members that “your action is still needed to pass legislation that would protect US veterans’ access to higher education and international student enrolment in US colleges and universities. Let’s do this!
“Passed into law in June, the THRIVE Act prevents American veterans from being able to use GI Bill education benefits at any college or university that utilises an incentive-based model to recruit international students from abroad. This goes against long-standing policy under the Higher Education Act and essentially forces schools to choose between educating veterans or educating international students.”
After pointing out that two bills were introduced in the US House of Representatives “that would make several necessary technical corrections including restoring US institutions’ ability to use incentive-based arrangements in international student recruitment”, it urges members to lobby their congressional representatives with the goal of “passing a legislative fix to the THRIVE Act”.
While highlighting the unregulated and generally shady nature of the industry and zeroing in on what some colleagues refer to as the fatal flaw of agency-based recruitment (ie agents represent partner institutions and not their student and parent clients), Altbach and Reisberg also emphasise the silver lining and benefits of an outright ban on the use of education agents.
The millions of dollars spent on commissions could be redirected to international student services, campus-based or campus-supervised personnel who could provide individualised attention to prospective applicants and financial aid to needy international students. The authors also call for additional resources for government agencies such as EducationUSA (Department of State) and the Department of Commerce.
Since it always takes at least two to tango, agents aren’t the only problem. Many educational institutions only have their eyes on the prize and are perfectly content to work with agents that get results and don’t mind the unethical business practices that contribute to this ‘success’. The flaw is not only the model, as is, but in many of the relationships between institutions and agents.
Winners and losers
In resurrecting this lively, multibillion dollar debate, Altbach and Reisberg perform a service by opening the door to envisioning a world, at least in US higher education, in which commission-based international student recruitment is but a memory. Is it possible? What would it look like? Who would be the winners and losers?
This would not be promising for US educational institutions in the short-term, including those at both the secondary (boarding and day schools) and post-secondary levels.
Colleagues would have to invest in ways to connect with parents and students directly, including digital marketing and participation in small- and large-scale events, both on- and offline, now and in the post-COVID era. Budget permitting, some could jump on the in-country representation bandwagon by hiring staff they pay directly or who work under the legal umbrella of a local company.
A ban on agency-based recruitments would be a boon to educational consultants whose income comes primarily from parents. (Some double dip, ie, take both a fee and commission from institutions that offer one, but that would become a moot point in this brave, new commission-free world.)
Perhaps it would be a catalyst for students to apply directly without the often unhelpful and sometimes counterproductive assistance of an education agent – something that is a recent trend in this era of expanded internet access, more extensive personal networks and the empowerment that comes from the information these outlets provide.
Despite their rejection of commission-based recruitment for the usual reasons, however, the authors do leave the door open to the use of education agents with this recommendation and caveat: “If universities are going to persist in signing contracts with third-party recruiters, then it is imperative that the experiences of international students placed by agents receive greater supervision by impartial evaluators.
“Perhaps this legislative ‘omission’ could lead to needed reform in an admissions system that does not serve students well and, without better monitoring, continues to risk ethical lapses.”
This is the money paragraph of their essay, pun intended.
The operative word in a new system of oversight is impartial. As it stands, non-profits that ‘certify’ agents are also in bed with them in that agent fees comprise a substantial portion of their annual budget. It is in their interests to certify companies. As some company owners have told me, this five-figure fee is a “good investment” that provides instant visibility and credibility.
Other revenue comes from institutional membership dues and corporate sponsorship from pathway providers and other companies that provide ancillary services such as standardised testing.
A related issue and criticism are that these organisations, which are viewed by some in the field as cover for business as usual, do not have sufficient staff to properly oversee their global network of certified agents, which severely limits their effectiveness. What these entities do best is to provide up-to-date information and advice to their members, offer training and organise networking events involving agents.
If the offending part of the legislation is not amended, institutions and their agents would likely find a way to continue to work together, for example, by calling a commission a marketing fee, referral award or marketing incentive. Where there’s a will, there’s usually a way.
Throwing the baby out with the bathwater
Altbach and Reisberg’s assertion that “agents are the problem” is close to the mark but not the whole story. Like any profession, there are good and bad apples.
As mentioned, the fundamental problem is the current model, which tilts in favour of the institutions as clients and limits students’ options, at best. At worst, students and their parents are persuaded to consider institutions that do not fall into the best-fit category. Truth in advertising becomes an empty and meaningless phrase.
Rather than throwing the baby out with the ethically tainted bathwater, why not explore viable alternatives?
An exploration of ethical ways of doing commission-based recruitment that also makes financial sense, given that education agents are for-profit companies not non-profit organisations, was the focus of an October 2018 article I co-authored with Eddie West, now assistant dean of international strategy and programmes at San Diego State University, entitled “An ethical approach to commissions-based recruitment”.
While acknowledging that the international recruitment apple is infested with worms, we proposed alternatives rather than calling for the elimination of commission-based recruitment.
As we noted: “The fatal flaw in commissioned recruitment is that most agents prioritise their partner schools’ interests over those of the students and parents they advise. This means that most guide or, in many cases, drive students to their partner schools because of the gold (commission) at the end of the rainbow (enrolment process).”
Another insidious element of the current system is that “remuneration can be as little as a few hundred dollars, or many thousands. And so the brute economic logic is that opportunistic commissions often drive advice to students. (Many agents also ‘double dip’, piggybacking off of this approach by also charging a fee to parents.)”
The latter practice represents an obvious conflict of interest. In the hypercompetitive environment of international student recruitment, bonus incentives are all the rage, even more reason for agents to drive students to the highest bidder.
Instead of customers as queen or king whose needs and goals are paramount, students and their parents are treated as pawns in a mostly predetermined and opaque process over which they have little control, and in which profit frequently trumps a commitment to serving their best interests.
There is one approach that clearly recognises students and parents as the primary clients in the educational advising process. Advisers do not pressure students to consider only partner schools simply because they pay a per head commission. Rather, they create a list of best-fit schools based on student and parent interests, goals, preferences and budget.
If a student ends up attending a commission-paying partner school, the advising fee is refunded to the parents. If s/he attends a non-partner institution, the company retains the advising fee.
This approach is ethical and makes financial sense. Whatever approach is adopted, there should be a triple win for students and their parents, educational institutions and agents.
A world with agents and integrity
It makes sense that education agents who send students to major host countries like the US will adapt, out of necessity, to whatever system is established. Do or die, so to speak. This requires an official oversight function that could involve two or three US cabinet-level departments, including the departments of commerce, education and state, working cooperatively towards common goals.
With the assistance of US missions (embassies and consulates) and supported by 2,000 or so US higher education institutions that host international students in numbers ranging from double figures to over 10,000, they could implement a comprehensive certification system that features training and places a premium on quality, ethical business practices and transparency.
A preferable alternative is a non-profit that does not take money from education agents and has the financial and human resources to properly monitor a select group of agents worldwide.
At the centre of any certification scheme should be an educational advising approach that treats students and parents as the primary clients with the revenue coming from either fees or commissions, but not both.
Imagine that: agents and integrity in the same sentence. A guy can dream, can’t he?
Dr Mark A Ashwill is managing director and co-founder of Capstone Vietnam, a full-service educational consulting company with offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City that works exclusively with regionally accredited colleges and universities in the United States and officially accredited institutions in other countries. Ashwill blogs at An International Educator in Viet Nam. A list of selected English and Vietnamese language essays can be accessed from his blog.