AIRC conference spurs discussion around best practices in agent-institution relationships

When, in September of 2013, American-based National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) voted to reverse its historic position on international recruitment agents it opened up the door to a new era of possibilities for enrolling international students at American colleges and other learning institutions. Even as it cleared the way for its members to use agents to recruit international students, however, NACAC stated:

“Members who choose to use incentive-based agents when recruiting students outside the US will ensure accountability, transparency and integrity.”

For its part, the American International Recruitment Council (AIRC), welcomed NACAC’s call for accountability, transparency, and integrity in relationships with agents; since AIRC’s inception in 2008, ensuring the quality and accountability of agents has been a key activity. The organisation took the opportunity to explore best practices in agent–institution relationships at its 5th Annual Conference (the largest one to date, with 240 attendees), held in Miami in early December 2013.

This ICEF Monitor article will summarise some of the main points and best practices emerging from the conference.

It’s a two-way street

With the use of agents less common in the US than in other leading destination countries such as Australia or the UK, there are many American institutions that aren’t completely sure how to work with agents. For example, does one just select an agent, then expect them to go off and gather appropriate international students for the institution?

The answer, of course, is no. The consensus at the AIRC conference was that agent–institution relationships are just that: relationships, requiring time to develop and investment by both parties. Like any relationship, they depend on mutual, frequent, and transparent communication.

Best practices: for the institution

  • Ensure your school/college is really ready for international students, and that you have clear targets, marketing budget, and support services devoted to them.
  • Narrow down the kind of students you want to attract (i.e., country, major/subject area, financial capability, etc).
  • Decide how the agent can complement current international recruitment efforts.
  • Decide on a process and criteria for selecting agencies (and make sure the agent is a member of AIRC and/or ICEF-vetted).
  • Designate a staff member to be responsible for agency relationships, and establish performance measures for agencies (see our recent article on ways to assess agent performance).
  • Develop agent contracts (standard sections would include scope of services, length of agreement, termination or separation conditions, commission terms, withdrawal/refund terms, dispute resolution process, timing of payments) and supporting documents. AIRC’s members-only resource library contains information critical to international student recruitment, including sample contracts, manuals, and resource lists.
  • Develop useful agent materials (e.g., an agent manual such as the online manual SUNY uses) which incorporates agents’ needs depending on the market (e.g., if agents in India are looking for work experience on campus, then put these details into their manual, whereas Saudi agents might be more interested in meal options or prayer room locations). Include a list of whom to contact for each issue: for I-20s, admissions, invoicing, testing, housing, etc.
  • Commit to clear and responsive communications.
  • Listen to agents about the markets they represent so you can understand its students better and develop marketing/products that are relevant to their needs and profiles. For example, a local agent in China could advise you on how your school’s name sounds/looks in Chinese. Wang Wei, CEO of Wiseway Global, advised that the way a school’s name translates will affect the school’s reputation and brand perception.
  • Ask agents what they need to be optimally effective in your target market.
  • Pay commissions in a timely manner.
  • Evaluate progress and results every six months.
  • Survey your international students who used agents (you can work with your agency partners to develop the survey) and work together to measure and track student success.

Best practices: for the agent

  • Be prepared to demonstrate the work and effort your agency puts into recruiting students that are a good fit for an institution’s programmes.
  • Demonstrate niche capability if applicable (e.g., recruiting post-graduate students).
  • Ask for the information and promotional materials you need to be effective (including what makes the institution/programme unique, so you aren’t talking in generalities like “this institution is just the best” – students want comprehensive information customised to their needs).
  • Invite schools to attend a local fair with you so they can gain first-hand experience and understanding of the market.
  • Don’t overpromise.
  • Don’t be too aggressive.
  • Don’t ask for a big payment at the first meeting.
  • Understand that getting a contract can take some time as the institution must go through a sometimes complicated process to get approvals.
  • Remember that long-term relationships are the goal, and professional, steady, effective work is how to get there.
  • Especially in the US, understand that institutions may be new to working with agents, and will be looking not only for quick results, but for proof they can trust you.
  • Present “success stories” (case studies of successful relationships and placements) as well as references who will vouch for your work.

Seven things agents need

  1. Good and fast communication (agents need answers for potential students fast);*
  2. Clear admission criteria and deadlines;
  3. Clear and written expectations and targets;
  4. Training and ideally, on-site visits;
  5. Current and accurate promotional materials, including those specific to their market in the local language;
  6. An agent manual (which should be concise – avoiding information overload – and relevant to the target market); one speaker advised to put health forms into the manual;
  7. Ideally, a shared web space (with the institution) to quickly update student statuses and requirements.

*One example of how important good, fast communication is: in the conference, one speaker talked of how an agent didn’t send in a student’s application because he had been told the institution required three letters of recommendation, and the student had only included two. It turns out the institution would have accepted the application given the student’s high grades, despite having two rather than three letters.

In fact, in the most recent igraduate/ICEF Agent Barometer, 71% of agents rated “good communication” as the most important ingredient in getting results:

icef-agent-barometer-main-ingredients-for-relationship-success

Considerations for both institutions and agents: relationships take time

A consistent theme among all AIRC conference presenters was the notion that agent–institution relationships take time to develop and produce best results. Mark Lucas, chief executive officer of IAE Global, believes in a “rule of three,” where it takes at least three face-to-face meetings to get comfortable together; he believes that the recruitment pipeline takes nearly two years to build. Gary Bergman, president of College Study US, outlines an even longer timeline:

“The first year of an agent-university relationship is like a first date. The second year things start cooking. By the fourth or fifth year, the relationship is pure magic, with communications working so well that both sides can make exceptions for those special cases that always will pop up.”

Credibility breeds credibility

Frequently mentioned at the conference was the need for agencies to demonstrate their credibility by belonging in reputable associations, having excellent references, being approved (aka “vetted”) by organisations like ICEF, and being members of AIRC.

Conference attendees feel that if more American institutions publicly declare they are working with well-regarded agencies, then more schools will feel comfortable searching out such agencies to improve their recruitment results. Over time, this will encourage an environment where the majority of agencies feel the need to be vetted by third parties, which will further heighten professional standards among more agencies, making it more likely for US institutions to reach out to agents to help meet their international recruitment goals.

Eventually, we should see this boost international enrolments in the US to much higher proportions than they are now (the latest Open Doors data show that international students represent only 3.9% of the total number of students in American undergraduate and graduate programmes).

For more specific information on the AIRC conference or seminars, please see their website.



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2 thoughts on “AIRC conference spurs discussion around best practices in agent-institution relationships

  1. I agree with the article but would add that like all relationships they need to be actively managed to get the best effect. Too many agents and institutions sign up with partners and sit back and wait for something to happen. This is unrealistic.. And often leads to disappointment. Therefore active management and integration of Marcomms is vital! As someone who has been on both sides of the fence (university /college international and recruit director and director of two agencies) as a lead trainer / presenter for EAIE / ICEF/NAFSA) I’m happy to advise if you’d like to get in touch.

  2. Pingback: Survey shows growing interest in education agents among US colleges - ICEF Monitor - Market intelligence for international student recruitment

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