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Student Recruiting: the Pitfalls of Moral Absolutism

I hope somebody has told NACAC—the National Association for College Admission Counseling—about an alarming new trend signaling the further crass commercialization of college admissions. It seems that colleges around the country have established large corps of recruiters, often headed by a well-compensated numbers-whiz cum head salesman, intent on roping in undergraduates whose tuition dollars can make or break an institution’s bottom line. According to a reliable recent account, the competition for these students is now “intergalactic.” One admissions guru says he views his college’s admissions push as a “campaign.” No wonder that colleges now employ search firms to find the best possible admissions and enrollment leaders. At the same time, there’s rising concern that this new marketing mentality is undermining educational values and neglecting the best interests of students.

This scenario might, at least in its broad outlines, be mistaken for one that really is being debated by NACAC—the practice of using agents, paid on commission, to recruit foreign students to cash-starved U.S. colleges and universities. A draft NACAC resolution, which appears to be gathering steam, would ban the organization’s members from using agents overseas. An outspoken figure in the admissions world, Barmak Nassirian of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, recently called the use of agents – which is routine in British and Australian universities—“destructive of the very function of admissions.” The credibility of American higher education, he declared, “is at risk if we begin to parcel out pieces of it like car sales.”

In fact, while the first paragraph above is certainly about sales, its subject is not overseas agents but the growing business-mindedness of U.S. admissions deans, as described in the Chronicle’s nicely reported account last week. Eric Hoover’s article underscored my sense that there’s a false conceit underlying much of the opposition to using agents—the notion that the admissions and recruiting techniques used by American colleges are somehow pure and noncommercial, while the use of paid recruiters in other countries is tainted and unseemly.

It’s true, of course, that the parallels are imperfect. A straight commission system carries with it the potential for perverse incentives. Agents sometimes try to snag applicants who may or may not be well-suited candidates for a particular institution (in the worst cases while also collecting fees from a student’s family for allegedly disinterested advice). And it’s hard to imagine agents deliberating scaling back intense marketing, instead emphasizing applicant quality over quantity, as one U.S. admissions dean interviewed by Hoover did. But on the matter of fit, the ultimate responsibility for admitting students lies not with agents but with the college itself, which presumably has an interest in telling the agents it hires exactly what caliber of student it wants and is likely to admit.

Moreover, there are lots of incentives for conventional admissions officials to recruit foreign students who may or may not be a perfect match for their institution. Their bosses may be happier with them when they recruit more international students, together with the tuition dollars those students bring. That kind of global recruiting success surely improves an admissions officer’s professional standing and, presumably, might lead to a raise. That would mean—gasp—a financial incentive for successful global recruiting!

I don’t mean to trivialize concerns about agents. But I stand by my view that a “mend it, don’t end it” approach makes sense. Intense admissions marketing and recruiting, with both the character of the student body and big dollars at stake, is a reality, whether or not paid agents are involved. It would be a mistake for NACAC to take an absolutist approach when more nuanced alternatives are available. For instance, there’s the voluntary code of conduct proposed by the American International Recruitment Council, a group of 100-plus U.S. institutions and 32 student recruitment agencies. There are also alternative financial models such as a flat-fee system, sometimes used by the Australian recruiting giant IDP,  in which an institution hires a recruiting firm but doesn’t pay per-student commissions. When market-driven recruiting is all around us, both within admissions offices and in the world of overseas agents, a black-and-white stance against agents doesn’t seem to fit the facts.

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