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US colleges continue to strengthen links with education agents

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
    • The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) finds that one-third of US colleges are working with agents to recruit international students
    • Of those that are, 75% consider agents to be important to their overall recruitment effort in overseas markets
    • NACAC continues to encourage US institutions to be more transparent and to disclose their use of agents to students, and encourages them use the best practice guides now available

Partnerships with agents are part of a multifaceted recruitment strategy for many American colleges, and representatives at private high schools in the US report that many of their international students worked with agents to plan their studies in the US. And, a recent survey reveals, more American colleges are using best practices guides to help govern their relationships with agents.

According to the 2017/18 Admission Trends Survey conducted by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC):

  • Over a third (36%) of American college representatives responding to the survey said their institution uses commission-based agents;
  • Of those who do work with agents, 75% consider them important to their recruitment efforts (39% “considerably important” and 36% “moderately important”);
  • Over a quarter (27%) of those who aren’t yet using agents are actively considering the idea.

NACAC also notes that there has been an increase over the past four years in the number of colleges using resources such as training manuals and in-person training sessions to improve their relationships with agents, and also assessing the students who come into their schools through agents.

Nearly all institutions surveyed have a policy requiring agents to sign formal contracts. Three-quarters of respondents said their institution assesses the students whom agents recruit to ensure they are a good fit, and with this practice especially common among larger institutions.

Best practice guides available to US educators include those created by the American International Recruitment Council (AIRC) and NACAC’s own Code of Ethics series.

US government acknowledges importance of agents

Until recently, the US State Department would not allow its EducationUSA counselling centres to work with commission-based agents in a belief that commission incentives would compromise agents’ ability to put international students’ interests first. But the department officially changed its stance in late-2018 and now supports the use of agents provided best practices are in place. In a written statement to Inside Higher Ed in December 2018, Caroline Casagrande, deputy assistant secretary of state for academic programmes, said:

“Recognising the important role of other stakeholders in this area, we have significantly expanded the information we make publicly available related to EducationUSA. We welcome agents and other professionals working with US universities to access that information and use it in their work. We will include agents and other legitimate stakeholders working with US universities in EducationUSA events and meetings.”

The State Department’s new welcoming position reflects the reality on the ground of fairly common use of agents in the US as well as of widespread use of agents in competitor countries such as the UK, Canada, and Australia. Making more information available about ethical recruiting practices makes sense in the context of these realities and promises to raise the professionalism and standards in place between US colleges and the agents they work with.

Agent use common among students attending private high schools

Nearly three-quarters (72%) of respondents from private high schools – where the vast majority of international students in the US are enrolled – said they were aware of student-agent working relationships.

Among all high school counsellors aware of student-agent working relationships, one-third said that over 50% of international students were working with agents.

More transparency is required

While the practice of listing agency partners on institutional websites is growing among US colleges, NACAC expressed concern that even now, only one-quarter of institutions that work with agents follow this practice.

NACAC recognises importance of agents, but urges caution

NACAC insists that students and institutions must “strategically develop and effectively implement operational protocols and institutional policies in line with best practice” in order ensure students and institutions are not harmed by potential unethical behaviour. When such practices are in place agent-institution relationships can be a linchpin of an effective international student recruitment strategy. As NACAC says in the introduction to the 2017/18 survey:

“Commissioned agents allow institutions to establish a local presence in strategic regions abroad, and to meet growing enrolment targets, oftentimes with limited budgets. From a student perspective, commissioned agents may be a main source of guidance for many families in countries that lack a significant presence of school-based college counselors, independent educational consultants, and college fairs.”

For additional background, please see:

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