Partnerships with international education consultants, or agents, are among the more controversial student recruitment strategies in International Education.
For many types of institutions, notably Intensive English Programs (IEPs) and university extension programs, working with agents is standard operating procedure. These relationships can have many advantages, including:
- Vetting students, ensuring that they fit the profile of the type of student that the institution wishes to admit;
- Assisting with event planning and logistics for recruitment activities in their local market;
- Helping the institution to better target its recruitment strategy, seeking students for particular majors (e.g., marketing specific programs at the institution in which international students are underrepresented); and
- Acting as a reliable source of market intelligence for American institutions, providing insight based on their experience and communications with potential students and their families.
For others, working with agents is considered inappropriate and unethical because it typically involves the payment of commissions for each student sent to an institution–a practice that is not permitted in domestic recruitment in the United States. Plus, the reality is that there are countless horror stories of agency partnerships that have gone terribly wrong.
Working with agents is such a hot topic in our field that I could write a series of articles exploring the pros and cons of these relationships; however, this particular post will focus on the following:
- The position that the National Association of College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) took on commission-based agency relationships; and
- A recent survey undertaken by Bridge Education Group and Student Marketing Youth Travel Consultancy to better understand the rate at which American universities have begun working with agents since 2013.
Some background info before getting started
Quick links to speed up your reading, if you are so inclined!
If you already know all about the history and rationale of NACAC’s positions on agents, you can click here to jump to the section of this post that deals directly with the survey results.
If you want to access NACAC’s information about their position on agents directly from the source, please click here to visit the appropriate page their website.
You can also click on the image below in order to access the page on Bridge Education Group’s website where the survey is available for download.
Finally, I just want to share a quick caveat: I don’t pretend to be an expert on NACAC, or to know absolutely everything there is to know on agent relations; however, I have some professional experience in this area. I have overseen my institution’s relationships with over 200 agents for the past eight years, including vetting and selection, training, support, contract renewal, project collaboration, event planning, and troubleshooting.
With regards to the historical context of this issue, I am using information that is readily available on NACAC’s website, along with my own opinions from my experience working with agents and participating in lively discussions on the topic at various conferences in the field. Still, in the event that I get something wrong here, or if anyone has anything they would like to add in order to enrich the conversation (preferably in a positive, professional manner), you are absolutely welcome to participate in the discussion via adding a comment below.
My purpose for writing this post is to share information about what has been happening over the past 5 years when it comes to the formation of agent relationships in American Higher Education through the context of NACAC’s recommendations and by sharing the research recently done by Bridge Education Group and StudentMarketing about the pace of adoption of agent relationships in this industry.
Alright, housekeeping is over–so away, we go!
Context: NACAC’s position on agents
So, as I mentioned above, the recent research that Bridge Education Group and StudentMarketing presented at NAFSA focused on the pace of adoption of agent relationships in American Higher Education since 2013. But what is so important about the year 2013 in the context of agent relations?
To understand, we need to look back a few years.
Recommendation of May 2011
Besides the aforementioned concerns about unsavory business practices and the ethics of paying commissions for recruitment results, many educational institutions in recent years had another major concern about these partnerships: paying commissions to agents is a practice that has technically been banned by (NACAC).
Why does this ban matter?
NACAC member institutions agree to abide by the organization’s Statement of Principles of Good Practice (SPGP)–essentially, core principles that promote strong professional standards and social responsibility in Higher Education. Violation of the SPGP can result in censure, suspension, or expulsion from NACAC, thereby losing their right to the benefits that NACAC membership provides.
The agent commission ban and the recommendation of May 2011
One of the core SPGP principles is that admissions officers and their representatives are not permitted to receive commission payments based on the number of students recruited or enrolled.
According to a statement in May 2011, in response to requests for clarification about whether the ban applied to international recruitment, NACAC’s Board of Directors recommended that the SPGP be updated to clarify that “the restriction applies to the recruitment of students in any context, whether domestic or international.”
This statement catapulted the issue into everyday conversation among international admissions and recruitment professionals, with discussions sometimes becoming rather contemptuous. In my experience, the conversations that I remember observing at conferences, in email chains, in online forums, in recruitment events, etc. often did not focus on the main issue of paying commission; instead, there was a great deal of concern about whether institutions should partner with agencies at all.
Interestingly enough, NACAC does not technically have a problem with agency partnerships (as indicated on page 2 of their “Statement on Incentive-Based Compensation for International Student Recruitment” from July 2011). Their main concern was about whether it was in the best interest of the student to work with an agent that receives commission payments from an American institution:
“[…] reducing the basis for compensation to the number of students enrolled in any circumstance introduces an incentive for recruiters to ignore the student interest in the transition to postsecondary education, and invites complications involving misrepresentation, conflict of interest, and fraud at the expense of the student.”
Ammended recommendation of 2013
In 2013, NACAC released an update of the SPGP, with the following recommended change to the section on promotion and recruitment:
“All members agree that they will […] not offer or accept any reward or remuneration from a secondary school, college, university, agency, or organization for placement or recruitment of students in the United States. Members who choose to use incentive-based agents when recruiting students outside the US will ensure accountability, transparency and integrity.“
Note: A footnote appears in the document immediately after this section, indicating that further clarification on the issue would be forthcoming in 2014.
The 2013 ammendment began the process of clarifying that NACAC’s policy would ultimately differentiate between acceptable practices in domestic recruitment versus that of international student recruitment. It also emphasized NACAC’s main concern that schools need to ensure the quality and accountability of their overseas partners. Based on this statement, some school officials saw “the writing on the wall” and began to initiate these relationships with agents.
Final approval in 2014
In 2014, an update of the SPGP was released, using the following language about this issue:
“All members agree they will […] not offer or accept any reward or remuneration from a secondary school, college, university, agency, or organization for placement or recruitment of students in the United States [nor] employ agents who are compensated on a per capita basis when recruiting students outside the United States, unless ensuring they and their agents conduct themselves with accountability, transparency, and integrity.”
Note: Two footnotes appear with this text. The first clarifies the meaning of “per capita” in this context as a commission payment for each student recruited. The second indicated that NACAC was giving a one-year moratorium on enforcing this clause (until September 2015).
2016 Research by Bridge Education Group and StudentMarketing
Once the NACAC Assembly clarified that the careful use of commission-based relationships with agents is permitted, the “hype” related to this issue seemed to diminish. This led to another question, though: how many universities decided to initiate these partnerships since that time?
In early 2016, these organizations joined forces to survey higher education institutions across the USA and agents around the world in order to determine the pace of the adoption of commission-based agency relationships and to provide insight about the key factors that influence these partnerships.
The report is free and it is available for download from Bridge Education Group’s website. (Hint: if you are like me and you find the Flash-like interface in which the report opens to be a bit cumbersome to use, look to the bottom right side of your screen and you will see an image of a downward-pointing arrow. Click on it, and it will download a PDF version of the report.)
The Executive Summary on page 7 of the report neatly summarizes its key findings. Personally, there are several points that I find to be of particular interest (see below).
Key Findings: An increasing number of American universities are now working with agents
▶ The pace of international student recruitment agency adoption by U.S. institutions has increased since 2013.
▶ 37% of U.S. universities and colleges work with international student recruitment agencies.
▶ 34% of U.S. institutions report they started using agents in the last three years.
The results of this research underscores something that I have been saying almost since I began working in this industry: When it comes to working with agents, the train has left the station. It’s time to get on board, or you’ll be left behind.
That’s the reality of our current situation, isn’t it? How many international educators know admissions and enrollment management personnel who are suddenly given the mandate to improve the number of international students on campus–often with unrealistic expectations about the growth rate and the amount of time they have to achieve these goals? For that matter, how many of us have been given these mandates, ourselves?
The reality is that one of the strategies that a school can put into place to start the process of meeting these goals through the recruitment of qualified international students is to have at least a few partnerships with really strong agents.
It’s time to break out the Marketing toolkit — and understand that agent relationships can be a strong component of your strategy.
In my opinion, a successful international student recruitment strategy follows the principle of diversification, using a variety of methods to ensure steady growth in the number of qualified students and in the level of diversity of the nationalities represented in the student body. To me, this means that recruiters should use everything in their Marketing toolkit: recruitment fairs, presentations, social media, alumni events, instant messaging, school visits, workshops, conferences, email marketing, sponsored student programs, advertising, online branding activities, building relationships with EducationUSA advisors, and–you guessed it–working with agents.
Be realistic and fair with your compensation strategy, or students will pay the price…literally.
School officials also have to be realistic about their expectations of agencies, especially with regard to the financial side of the relationship.
At the end of the day, agencies are businesses that provide schools with a valuable service, and they should be compensated for that service. These business have employees that have bills to pay, kids to put through school, etc.
We need to face the reality that these agents are going to need to be paid one way or another–and if we are not paying them a commission, then they have no other alternative but to charge their students. This opens another can of worms. If we are not compensating agents, then we lose one of the strongest types of leverage that we have in these relationships. We would have little to no control over how they are representing our programs, or whether they are offering quality services to students–and, of course, we would have no control over whether the amount charged to the students is reasonable. So, ultimately, the student pays the price.
Another key finding: Schools are exploiting a loophole
▶ 12% of U.S. institutions not collaborating with agents report working with pathway operators, and indirectly using their network of agencies to recruit international students to the USA.
This key finding of the report does not surprise me at all. Talk about working a “loophole” in the system! It’s a covert way of supporting agency relationships, but without having to publicly share with interested parties that the school works with agents.
Depending on the politics at the institution in question, I can understand why some officials choose to do this; however, in my opinion, this practice is actually riskier than simply entering into a direct contractual relationship with the agency.
Again, to me, it is an issue of leverage. With a contract in place, a school can make better arrangements for training agents and ensuring quality of service to the students. If both parties have stipulations that must be followed in the contract, then the agents have more of a guarantee that they can expect a certain level of service and support from the school. When done effectively, this can create strong relationships between the two parties, fostering a spirit of collaboration and open communication between them.
Seen in this light, doesn’t it seem like creating relationships directly with agents (instead of relying solely on the network of third-party, for-profit pathways providers) is a practice that is more closely aligned with the spirit of NACAC’s SPGPs?
At the end of the day…
Folks, it’s 2016, and the numbers don’t lie. More and more schools are doing this. When there are some agents out there that are veritable experts on American higher education and whose business practices are above reproach, why would you put your institution at a disadvantage by not taking an opportunity to work with even a small number of them?
Let’s get with the times and better promote–and better regulate–these practices. Let’s support the good work of organizations like NACAC, which reminds us to ensure a level of quality and transparency in service with our agents, and the American International Recruitment Council (AIRC), which has created an “accrediation-style” certification system for agents to be able to prove that they have high standards in terms of their business practices, service to students, etc.
The more that we do to improve these relationships, the better off that institutions–and our students–will be.