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Should you use agents?

Agents aren't for everyone, but if done right, they can be effective

NACAC Agent Debate
Use of agents by universities in the United States has recently become a topic of controversy with admissions offices and enrollment managers.

NACAC is working toward a stance on the issue, read our perspective on the NACAC Agent Debate

What is an agent?

Before determining if you should use an agent, you should first make sure you understand what an agent is.  An authorized agent is an individual or firm that has a legal agreement to act as a university representative overseas.  The agent can be an individual, a company or a division of a company and operate in a variety of settings.  They may serve exclusively as university representatives (recruiters) or they may mix services to serve both students and schools.  There are also agents who only serve the student's interest, overseas they are often also referred to as agents where in the US we would call them independent education consultants/counselors.

Where Can I Find Agents?

According to the agent clearinghouse ICEF, there are over 10,000 agents worldwide.  ICEF registers agents and help connect them with schools. ICEF also helps facilitate training and improve the quality of the service they bring to schools.  ICEF hosts workshops that bring schools and agents together.

Many countries require agents be licensed and accordingly have their own systems of agent regulation, but this is regulation in the country where the students live. In the United States an organization called the American International Recruitment Council (AIRC) has developed standards of good practice for agents and is certifying agents. A growing number of US Universities are requiring their agents be AIRC certified.

What Does it Take to Hire an Agent?

It is recommended that you have a contract with the agent to clarify any agreement for their representation of you.  There is no standard agreement, nor is there a standard service fee or terms of service.  The contract should include the scope of services offered, list of roles and responsibilities, payment terms and severance conditions.  These contracts are often similar to those signed with marketing companies and have liability clauses similar to those of advertising contracts.  You should make sure that the payment terms and potential performance incentives are run through your institutions purchasing department so as to conform with your institutional guidelines as well as local and state laws.  For some public institutions your purchasing departments may require an RFP process for open bidding, while others exempt this practice.

What Do Agents Want?

Agents are businesses and thus want to represent programs or institutions that benefit them.  An agent wants a client that is reliable, supportive, reputable and profitable.  The agent wants clients that raise the standing and viability of their business.  Forget the stereotypes, good agents are selective in who they choose to work with and are in business for the long-haul thus interested in clients that they can trust.  An agent typically assembles a portfolio of schools to represent so that they can be competitive in their local market.  A business analogy is that an independent insurance agent.  The insurance agent has life, home, health, auto, etc. and works with his customers to find a policy and coverage levels to best fit the consumer.  Similarly an education agent builds a portfolio of schools designed to give the agent local presence.  An education agent will want a mix of selective and non-selective schools, ESL, undergrad and grad offerings and may choose to specialize in one segment, again based on their place in the local market.

Agents want schools to help in generating leads.  Agents often view their commission as compensation for enrolling the student, not necessarily discovering the student.  Schools are expected to participate in agent promotion activities, everything from advertising campaigns to fairs and road shows.  Agents also want student leads from the school's web sites or online advertising efforts.  Good agents view their relationship as a partnership, they do not want schools that simply sit at home and wait for students, they need the schools to help with lead generation and as their agent they are excellent at converting leads to enrollments.

Is an Agent Cost-Effective?

It is a misconception that the agent fee comprises the entire cost of recruiting an individual student.  Schools must train the agents and support the agents.  Agent staff should visit the school periodically and schools should visit agent markets periodically.  The more the school can give public support to the agent, the better that agent's chances of converting students.  If done right, the partnership can reap great results and be quite cost-effective, especially when the school is not well known or well regarded in the overseas market.

Some schools use agents as a cost savings, allowing the agent to do some of the work of their admissions folks and to help facilitate other academic and business development partnerships. Good agents provide key market intelligence and give their schools partners protection against dramatic shifts in the market.  US universities have learned how to use companies to help better manage their bookstores, dining halls, computer networks and even online degree programs, there is no reason that similarly strong partnerships can't happen with international student recruiting.

Is an Agent Right for Us?

Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to this question.  It is possible that agents are a key component of an international recruiting strategy, or may serve in a less important role or may not make any sense at all.  Agents may make sense for some programs at an institution, but maybe not all.  Usually agents work well for ESL programs and those with less restrictive admissions policies, but we've seen agents perform successfully for very specialized graduate programs – it depends.

You should talk to multiple agents before you develop a plan.  Like all recruiting strategies you should have a diverse portfolio of agents.  Consider those that are large, corporate and well established, ones that will have you in a respectable portfolio of universities.  You should also consider a few small agencies where you will get very personal service.  One great place to connect with agents is an ICEF Workshop or through other workshops like  BMI.  Wether you use agents or not, you should join AIRC and attend their annual conference.

Read the white paper called Best practices for grad programs using student recruiting agents

Need An Expert?

If your institution is still unsure about how to proceed, then international student recruiting expert Mark Shay can provide you with consulting services. Mark will work with key stakeholders to assess wether working with agents is a prudent strategy and moderate a constructive debate over the pros and cons of using agents. If it determined that agents are a sensible addition to the international recruiting strategy at your institution, Mark can then be contracted to walk those same key administrators through the agent model and align university operations to gain the most out of agent relations. Mark can assist with developing sensible strategies for your purchasing department, developing a legal framework for agent contracts, establish a sensible revenue model and bring the marketing and admissions people in line with agent expectations. Ideally this engagement lasts through the first successful student placements, taking Mark's years of hands on experience and applying it to your institution's success.

In 2012 Mark worked with Auburn University in just such a capacity. Read about the project here: Auburn testimonial. Mark has been on the staff at two universities and held senior management positions for two successful agents. He continues to stay connected with the field with informal matchmaking between universities and key agents worldwide. Mark is presently serving as General Manager of Academic Assembly, a company that helps universities with international student recruiting. Academic Assembly has a portfolio of services available, if interested please contact Mark Shay.