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USA: Approval of commercial recruitment agents – end of the debate?

During the 69th National Conference of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), the organisation’s principles of good practice were changed with regard to the issue of agents commissioned to recruit international students. Passed by a vote of 152 to 47, the change in the principles of good practice now officially allows NACAC’s members to make use of incentive-based agents in their recruitment of international students, but obliges them to “ensure accountability, transparency and integrity.” Prior to this step, NACAC was considering banning members from participating in study fairs within the US, if they engaged in hiring commercial recruitment agents overseas in order to attract international students.

In the USA, heated debates about recruitment of international students through so called student-recruitment agents overseas have been going on for a long time within the field of higher education. In order to increase the enrolment of international students, many US universities turn to commercial student-recruitment agents. This practice, however, has drawn a lot of criticism from organisations such as NACAC or EducationUSA, a U.S. Department of State-supported network of advising centres for international students who want to study in the US. The practice of hiring commercial recruitment agents is often considered unethical and problematic, given that such recruitment agents would display a strong bias in favouring US universities which pay for recruitment agents, rather than having prospective students’ interests in mind in finding a suitable university for them. Moreover, there is a general suspicion towards commercial recruitment agents due to some dubious practices committed by a few recruitment agents in the past, such as the falsification of application documents.  This is mainly because recruitment agents’ salary also depends on the admission of prospective students.

The practice of paying overseas agents is seen as increasingly gaining ground and a necessary means in competing for enrolment of international students. At the same time, denying a certain bias of commercial recruitment agents towards specific clients is hardly maintainable. NACAC’s decision to officially allow cooperation with commercial recruitment agents has been criticised by opponents of this practice and is seen as a sign of caving in to demands of powerful members within NACAC. The debate about commercial recruitment agents will probably not end; however, with NACAC’s official ‘approval’ this practice has gained more legitimacy.