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Illegal in US, paid agents overseas help American colleges recruit students

Green River Community College, 45 minutes south of Seattle, has no special overseas cachet, no global name recognition — but it has enrolled 1,400 international students this year, most of them recruited by overseas agents who get 15 percent of the $9,732 first-year tuition.

“It would be impossible for us to attract students by advertising or going to recruitment fairs, since the whole community college concept of coming for two years and then transferring to a four-year university is unknown in most countries,” said Ross Jennings, vice president for international programs at the college in Auburn, Wash. “We need agents who know us and understand what we do.”

In the United States, it is illegal to pay recruiters for each student they bring in — a practice outlawed 20 years ago because of widespread abuse by agents who signed up anyone they could, regardless of academic potential. But the use of commissioned agents to recruit international students remains a highly divisive, hotly debated issue in higher education circles.

“When you deputize someone to represent you who don’t eat unless he brings you warm bodies, you can expect all kinds of unfortunate practices,” said Barmak Nassirian, an associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers and one of the most outspoken critics of commissioned agents.

Last spring, the board of the National Association for College Admission Counseling issued a draft policy for its members against the use of commissioned overseas agents. “The use of agents who are compensated in the form of bonus, commission or other incentive payment on the basis of the number of students recruited or enrolled creates an environment in which misrepresentation and conflicts of interests are unavoidable,” the draft said.

But the reaction from the institutions that use, or hope to use, commissioned agents was so intense that instead of approving its draft, the association named a commission to study the issue. The commission, led by Philip A. Ballinger of the University of Washington, is scheduled to meet for the first time in March.

Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, was one of those asking the association to reconsider the policy. Given that commissions have become standard practice for British and Australian universities, he said in a letter to the association, banning their use would make it harder for American institutions — especially small colleges — to compete in the global higher education market.

“The use of agents isn’t going away, and if Nacac bans them, I think some institutions will quit Nacac and some will probably sue for restraint of trade,” said Norman J. Peterson, vice provost for international education at Montana State University and a board member of the American International Recruitment Council, which was formed in 2008 to adopt voluntary recruiting standards.

“We need to find a way to promote ethical practice,” he said, “rather than have some kind of quixotic quest to turn the clock back 20 years.”

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