And just over one in three students using independent agents – who are paid by students and their parents but don’t receive commission from a college – pay them the same figure, the results found.
Of the 5,880 students from 50 countries who applied to study in the US and who took part in the survey, 23% used agents during the application process.
“Much of the information is not published in any language other than English”
Although the survey showed that independent agents are more widely used, with two thirds of respondents using their services, one of the most notable findings of the report was the extent to which students paid for the services of “institution-sponsored agents” – defined as those “who receive commissions from or have a contract or agreement with US institutions”.
Two thirds of the students who used institution-sponsored agents paid for their services – a number that was “higher than we expected”, said Megha Roy, senior research associate at WES.
“Of course, these fees may be related to compensation for additional services not covered by institutional agreements – eg English language training, and test preparation, help applying for student visas, or help making travel arrangements,” she told The PIE News.
Overall, 45% of respondents paid under $500 for agents’ services, while a further 35% paid between $501-$5,000.
Education agents were used in the application stage by 79% of respondents overall. The proportion was highest among East Asian students, at 82%, and lowest among students from Latin America and the Caribbean, at 74%.
The language barrier is one of the reasons why so many students from East Asia use agents, said Roy.
“Much of the information is not published in any language other than English,” she said. “So in countries where English is not generally spoken, college application processes – which are really the point when stress levels can become intense and details matter – can be especially daunting.”
Another issue for students from this region “may also be lack of familiarity with US applications processes more generally”, noting that nearly half (48%) of East Asian respondents said their main reason for working with an agent was a desire to “[reduce] time and effort needed to prepare and/or complete admission applications”.
Meanwhile, the pre-arrival services, including travel arrangements, accommodation and orientation issues including safety and cultural issues, were the most commonly used among European students.
And two thirds of European students used banking and insurance services offered by agents.
“The fact that a majority of European students in the US are at undergraduate level (41% versus 31% graduate) could be one of the reasons,” said Roy.
While the overwhelming majority of students surveyed (83%) said they were satisfied or very satisfied with the services of both groups of agents, some students felt there were conflicts of interest with the institution-sponsored group.
“Institutions… have to determine how to provide those agents with regularly updated information that students want and need in order to make good decisions”
The top complaint and the biggest discrepancy between the types of agents was that they conveyed “unrealistic expectations about on-campus jobs and/or scholarship opportunities” – with 29% of students saying this was true for institution-sponsored agents, and 20% for independent agents.
And 16% of students using institution-sponsored agents complained of “false promises about guaranteed admission at their top choice of schools”, compared with 11% who worked with independent agents.
Roy pointed out that institutions need to look at how they educate solo practitioners.
“Institutions… have to determine how to provide those agents with regularly updated information that students want and need in order to make good decisions: current courses, programs, and program requirements; financial aid and scholarships; career services; student life; English language training; housing; etc,” she said.
“Digital technologies can help in terms of dissemination. Translated marketing materials are also a must-have in some regions.”