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In International-Student Recruitment, Questions About Integrity Persist

The agent debate is dead. Long live the integrity debate.

For some time now, the discussion about whether American colleges could use commission-based agents when recruiting students abroad has been the hottest of hot-button issues in international admissions, with each camp staking out fiercely partisan positions.

It all came to a head with the recommendation of a commission organized by the National Association for College Admission Counseling—which represents some 13,000 college admissions officers and high-school counselors—that attempted to chart a middle ground. Basically, the admissions group, known as NACAC, said, Colleges, we’d rather you not pay recruitment agents. But if you’re gonna do it, we’ll hold our noses as you go ahead.

It’s been nearly a year since NACAC’s members endorsed the policy shift, and there’s some evidence that the issue, if not exactly dead, is certainly less divisive.

Colleges that had been sitting on the sidelines have moved forward. Some have chosen to use overseas agents (agents are verboten in domestic recruitment); the American International Recruitment Council, an organization that sets standards for and accredits agents, says its institutional membership grew 22 percent, to 236 colleges, last year. Others have gone in the other direction, even posting on their admissions websites that their institutions do not work with international recruiters.

“It seems to me,” says Jim L. Miller, a former NACAC president who helped develop the new policy, “that the frenzy has calmed.”

It would be wrong, however, to mistake the cooling of the agent debate for the end of concerns about fraud and abuse in international admissions. Instead, if conversations I had last week at the annual meeting of the Overseas Association for College Admission Counseling, NACAC’s internationally focused affiliate, are any indication, those anxieties may be widening and deepening.

I heard about outrageous agent contracts, yes—like one in which all placement guarantees were off if a student tried to access an email address set up in his name and listed on his college applications, a requirement that ensured the agent had total control over communication between the student and all colleges to which he applied. But I also heard about forged recommendation letters, fraudulent transcripts, phantom test-takers, even faked Skype interviews in which more-fluent English speakers took the place of prospective students, fooling colleges into thinking applicants had the language proficiency necessary for admission.

Those deceitful practices aren’t new to international admissions—in fact, a colleague and I wrote about the subject nearly three years ago for The Chronicle and The New York Times. It may be, though, that the contention over paying agents in some way obscured discussion of the broader problem. Several years on, there’s arguably greater transparency around the use of agents, at least those contracted and paid for by American colleges. The issue of fraud in international admissions remains.

As overseas enrollments continue to climb, college officials say they grapple with the challenge of ensuring legitimacy in the admissions process. “We pursue every indication of fraud to its conclusion,” said Michael A. Steidel, director of admission at Carnegie Mellon University, during a session at the OACAC conference devoted to the topic. “It takes a lot of time, a lot of effort.”

About no other country are the concerns more acute than China, which dwarfs every other country as a source of foreign students in the United States. And the problems are recognized on the ground there as well.

Richard Lee Wilkin and Della Cheng are the principal and chief counselor at an international program associated with Ningbo Foreign Language School. (As is often the case in China, they actually work for a private company to which the operation of the high school’s international division has been outsourced.)

In a system where their performance is judged on university placements, Mr. Wilkin and Ms. Cheng feel pressure to make sure their charges get into top American colleges. That pressure doesn’t come just from the school but from parents who have high expectations for their only children. When one student’s offer of admission from a top public university in the United States was rescinded because of a poor science grade in his final semester, Mr. Wilkin recalls, parents were aghast—not by the university’s decision but by his and Ms. Cheng’s refusal to alter the score.

“They wanted to know why we didn’t make that happen,” he says.

Mr. Wilkin and Ms. Cheng say they are committed to getting their students ahead the right way. They offer 18 Advanced Placement subjects, not just in science and mathematics, fields in which Chinese students typically succeed, but also in subjects like art history. They’re drafting an honor code. Before their students graduate, Mr. Wilkin and Ms. Cheng lecture them on issues like plagiarism, which can get them kicked out of American colleges.

But when a competitor school—in which, they say, the college counselor is taking kickbacks to steer students to an agent—ends the year with a better placement record, well, it’s hard not to feel frustrated.

Even as they criticize the unethical behavior they see, the pair worry their students will be penalized. “On the first day, I tell them,” Ms. Cheng says, “‘You’re a Chinese kid, so you have a question mark next to your name.’”

From Ms. Cheng and Mr. Wilkin’s perspective, American colleges have to do more to get to know and work with high schools committed to working in an aboveboard way. College recruiters say they need more guidance in negotiating murky applicant pools in places like China.

If a solution’s unclear, one thing isn’t: The debate over academic integrity in international recruitment is far from over.

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