After almost two years, it came down to one word.
In a split-the-difference report that attempts to mollify everyone but is likely to please no one, a commission named by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, or NACAC, has recommended that the organization change its policies to state that members "should not" pay commissions to international-student recruiters, from the current "may not." If colleges opt to pay so-called incentive-based compensation, the report says, they should be transparent and have strict accountability requirements in place.
Even the panel's chairman, Philip A. Ballinger, said he and other members were not "married" to the report's findings.
"It's a long wait for a single word," said Mitch Leventhal, vice chancellor for global affairs at the State University of New York and a vocal supporter of the use (and regulation) of overseas agents.
As commission members have conferenced and caucused, several admission cycles have passed. With international enrollments more important than ever, a number of colleges have announced high-profile deals with for-profit providers that rely on networks of commission-based agents to recruit foreign students.
Over that time, membership in the American International Recruitment Council, a group started by Mr. Leventhal and others to oversee and certify overseas agents, has increased by 33 percent, to nearly 200. But many other colleges have undoubtedly decided that agent-based recruiting is not for them.
For most institutions, will the commission's findings do anything to alter the status quo?
"It's like how you won't ever change red states blue and blue states red," said Dani Zaretsky, a co-founder of Higher-Edge, an international-education consulting firm. "Those institutions that have already made the decision to tie themselves to agents aren't going to change their mind because of this report. And those that were never prepared to aren't going to consider it now. The real question is, what does it do to the fence-sitters?"
Just how large that pool of undecided colleges is remains uncertain. It's fair to say, however, that few questions have divided admissions and international offices in recent years as much as has the debate over the use of international recruitment agents.
On one side are those who believe that, as more and more colleges vie for top international students, not working with recruiters is tantamount to sacrificing a competitive edge to institutions, elsewhere in the United States and abroad, that do.
As the report notes, the practice has long been common among British and Australian universities, and in countries like China, the top source of foreign students on American campuses, families regularly turn to intermediaries to guide them through the admission process. By paying agents, the argument goes, American colleges can ensure that they get students who are the best fit for their institutions.
But opponents of contracting with agents think colleges ought not to engage in recruitment practices overseas that are forbidden in the United States, where paying incentive compensation is prohibited under federal financial-aid law. Dangling commissions might encourage agents to steer students only to those institutions that, in essence, pay a finder's fee and could put profit margins ahead of student needs, they worry. That's bad for the American higher-education system, the critics maintain.
Not a 'Wallflower in the Bunch'
Such polarized viewpoints were reflected in the makeup of the commission itself, perhaps rendering a fence-straddling outcome inevitable. (NACAC's board, after all, had already backed away from an absolute ban.)
"There wasn't a wallflower in the bunch," Mr. Ballinger, the panel's chairman, said of the 28 members. Indeed, at one point, Mr. Ballinger, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Washington, feared that the group would not be able to come to any sort of consensus and might instead settle on issuing an "educational" report that merely described recruitment practices in the United States and around the world.
In the end, the commission recommended that NACAC "maintain a healthy concern over the potential effects of commissioned recruiting, while acknowledging the current state of international recruitment by removing the absolute restriction in favor of a more nuanced, best practice stance."
But, the report continues, such a recommendation should not be seen as a "blanket endorsement of commissioned-based recruitment." And it states that the admission group should regularly monitor and assess recruitment practices and be prepared to weigh in again.
While the report won't become the group's official policy unless it is approved in votes by NACAC's executive board and by its membership, during the association's annual conference this fall, the commission's careful language could lower the temperature of the agent debate. It's probably no coincidence that both an official at a university that uses agents and a skeptic of the practice employed strikingly similar language in assessing the report's impact.
"Maybe now we can move forward and have a much more balanced discussion," said the skeptic, Rahul Choudaha, director of research and advisory services at World Education Services, a nonprofit organization that specializes in foreign credentials and trends.
Jonathan Weller is director of international admissions at the University of Cincinnati. "It's the kind of compromise where neither side loves it," Mr. Weller said. "Hopefully, we can move past it and focus on the bigger issues in international education."