Education officials are grappling with creating guidelines for colleges' ethical recruitment of foreign students, an unregulated and rapidly growing industry born out of the intense competition for undergraduates.

Universities sometimes use third-party recruiting agencies to find the much-desired students, who almost always pay full tuition. And in many cases, private firms contract with colleges in the United States to promote the colleges abroad and help foreign students navigate the American higher education system.

"They function comparable to travel agents," said Eddie West, director of international initiatives for the National Association for College Admission Counseling, commonly known as NACAC, based in Arlington, Virginia. "It's an underknown aspect of the international recruiting process."

The private agents or advisers, most of whom are located in the students' home countries, vary by scope and quality, West said. Many are mom-and-pop shops that advise students and their families about college programs, admissions requirements, English language preparation, visa application and relocation logistics.

The method of payment for those services varies. Some agents are paid by families and some are paid by colleges on a per-student, commission basis. For the latter, the commission may be as much as the first year's tuition, experts said.

About 20 percent of international students go through some 10,000 agents around the globe, mainly in China and Korea, West said.

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Colleges in Great Britain, Canada and Australia have employed agents for years. In those countries, where a majority of the postsecondary institutions are public, the government oversees the recruiting of international students, West said.

Huntington resident Gary Bergman -- a former administrator at Hofstra University and LIU Post -- is among the few recruiters of international students based in the United States.

His firm, College Study US, acts as a headhunter for colleges seeking international students by working with agents employed by the families in their home country. It is one of 72 agencies worldwide certified by the American International Recruitment Council, a nonprofit founded in 2008 and based in Bethesda, Maryland.

Bergman, 65, said he founded the company in 2008 after more than 20 years in the Island's higher education system, including as vice president of enrollment at Hofstra and associate provost of enrollment at LIU.

He watched as colleges became increasingly more reliant on the international pool of students and recognized an emerging, niche market.

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"This is a rapidly changing area," said Bergman, who said he receives two or three inquiries each week from U.S. colleges seeking to ramp up their international recruitment.

"The use of agents is very popular and accepted outside the U.S., whereas in the U.S. there's a lot of uncertainty about what we do," he said. "There's a bit of irony in that, because there are many companies who assist domestic students to get into elite U.S. colleges."

About one-third of Bergman's client base is in the New York metropolitan region.

Movement toward regulating the international recruiting market has come from senior administrators at postsecondary institutions who recognized the need for ethical standards. They founded AIRC.

Modeled after the regional accreditation process that colleges and universities go through every five or 10 years, AIRC has 39 benchmarks that recruitment agencies must meet to gain its stamp of approval.

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Such accreditation "heightens the level of trust" among the colleges seeking to employ the agencies overseas, said John Deupree, the group's executive director.

"American universities have approached recruitment in other countries based on the American model, assuming that students have choice and guidance counselors. But when you go outside the U.S., the cultural norm is very different," Deupree said. "Many institutions do an admirable job in reaching out to students, but it is impossible to have someone in every country."

A conflict of interest arises, said West of NACAC, when an agency is paid a commission by the college based on whether a student enrolled, and also is paid by the student and his or her family.

"Students think they are walking in getting impartial advice, but in fact they are recruiting for a particular school," West said.

NACAC, with 14,000 members that include high school guidance counselors, college admissions officials and other groups, recently updated its guidelines to include a section on institutions' employment of international recruiting agents.

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To comply with NACAC's best practices, U.S. colleges employing recruitment agents must ensure "they and their agents conduct themselves with accountability, transparency, and integrity," the new guidelines say.