The study, carried out by the American International Recruitment Council and the National Association for College Admission Counseling, found that 49% of the responding 294 institutions currently partner with agents to recruit undergraduate international students.
Around 46% of the institutions said they “[had] not partnered with agents immediately prior to or during the pandemic”.
The remaining 5% said that they did not currently work with agents, but they were “actively exploring agent partnerships as a result of the pandemic”.
According to Lindsay Addington, director of Global Engagement at NACAC, the survey revealed that “more institutions may be using agents than they had a few years ago”.
Annual NACAC admissions trends surveys in 2017 and 2018 found that 36% of institutions were using agents, with 25% considering the use.
“It appears that institutional partnerships with agencies are growing”
The survey also found that private institutions were more likely than public institutions to have agent partnerships, 60% compared to 42%.
“It appears that institutional partnerships with agencies are growing,” AIRC’s executive director Brian Whalen agreed.
“This is likely due to a wider acceptance on the part of institutions of the effectiveness and benefits of partnering with agents.”
During the pandemic, institutions have realised the “effective on-the-ground representation through additional agent partnerships when global travel for their admissions staff is curtailed”, he explained.
“With the new US government leadership, there is a renewed optimism about the future of international student flow to the United States. Institutions see agent partnerships as critically important for taking advantage of what is expected to be a resurgence in international student mobility to the US,” Whalen told The PIE.
“Through our open ended response options in the survey, we did learn that some of these changes were in the works prior to the pandemic, and the pandemic might have accelerated implementation of more agent partners for example, but it’s not clear that it was the pandemic itself that caused some of these fluctuations,” Addington said.
She suggested that Covid-19 may have made it more difficult to properly vet and research which agencies would be a good fit for institutions, as well as institutions lacking the resources necessary to managing those partnerships.
Of the respondents that said they currently partner or had recently partnered with agents, the vast majority (93%) said they partnered with agents prior to the pandemic. Only 2% indicated they began working with agents as a result of the pandemic.
However, an additional 5% said they had stopped working with agents as a result of the pandemic.
While 57% said there had been no change in number of agent partners since the start of the pandemic, 34% said the number of agent partners had risen.
The survey also identified reasons that institutions do not collaborate with agents, with 55% saying they had staff dedicated to international recruitment travel.
This was followed by 54% of the 124 non-agency institutions indicating concerns with unethical practice, and 45% saying their institution has staff dedicated to “armchair” recruitment of international students.
An additional 31% said they do not partner with agents for fear of harming the institution’s reputation.
Not supporting a per-student commission model (47%) topped the ethical concerns cited by institutions, followed by potential for agents to provide inaccurate information about institutions (23%), and agents steering students to particular institutions based solely, or primarily, on commission incentives (18%).
“Double-dipping” concerns that agents will charge both students and institutions (7%) and concern that agents will not verify the authenticity of student records of achievement, finances and statement of purpose (5%) followed.
The per-student commission model concern is “deeply routed in US higher education” Addington said, a practise which NACAC’s code of ethics did not permit until 2013.
To alleviate some of these concerns, institutions can focus on building personal “non-transactional” relationships with agents as well as ensuring they provide ample training to agents following partnership agreements, experts speaking at AIEA’s annual conference added.
“These relationships have traditionally been thought as kind of transactional relationships”
“One of the issues that has existed with institutions contracting agents is that these relationships have traditionally been thought [of] as kind of transactional relationships,” said Pii-Tuulia Nikula, senior lecturer at the Eastern Institute of Technology in New Zealand.
“[Agents] would like institutions to see [them] as strategic partners… good agents feel that they invest a lot in those relationships. They would like to feel an important part of the family, rather than just something that you can throw away in case the numbers don’t look very good in a certain year.”
Ensuring agents have comprehensive training from the beginning and throughout the relationship will also “help to avoid issues in information inaccuracy”, she added.
“Institutions that take a more laissez faire approach, a hands off approach to working with their agents, we found were most likely to have unsatisfactory outcomes in those working relationships,” Eddie West, assistant dean, International Strategy and Programs at the San Diego State University Global Campus, said.
“There’s a myth out there… that you just have to meet some agents, sign some contracts, send them on their way, and the enrolments will come. Far from it. Really, an effective agent management strategy requires a hands on approach and an active engagement, treating them as partners, not just, ‘oh, they’re over there doing who knows what’.”
New techniques such as mystery shopping will help institutions find out how they are being represented, Nikula proposed.
“Establishing familiarity, trust and effective working relationships with agencies takes an investment of time and a commitment to industry standards by both institutions and agencies,” Whalen added.
The compact that ACE released on February 12 is “consistent with how institutions should think about agency partnerships”.
“Agencies can be a critically important part of the “lifecycle approach” toward international students by providing effective, on the ground marketing, advisement and orientation to international students before they arrive in the US,” Whalen said.
Some 9% of institutions further reported that they do not recruit international students.
“Institutions that have concerns about ethical practices should be assured that AIRC-certified agencies have demonstrated their ongoing commitment to high quality standards and to serving the best interests of students and institutional partners,” Whalen added.
“The most surprising result to me is that there are still a number of institutions – about 50% of the institutions that report that they do not use agents – that do not partner with agencies because of ethical concerns that they have.
“The lesson demonstrated by AIRC’s 12-year history is that these concerns can be alleviated by relying on industry standards, best practices, and a commitment to doing what is best for students.”