Ethical agents should support direct student admissions

According to a survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, or NACAC, 38.5% of United States institutions reported using agents in 2017, up from 30% in 2010. This means that 70% did not use agents in 2010, and 61.5% – a solid majority – still didn’t, as of two years ago. That’s not what one would call a sea change in the use of education agents by US higher education institutions or a ringing endorsement of commissions-based recruitment.

In addition, according to NACAC’s 2018 State of College Admission report, nearly 70% of institutions surveyed said international student recruitment agents were of limited or no importance as a part of their international recruitment strategy (the breakdown is 49.7% for ‘limited importance’ and 20.1% for ‘no importance’).

Furthermore, the percentage of responding institutions that attributed ‘considerable importance’ to agents, among various recruitment strategies for international first-time freshmen, was an anaemic 15.1%.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

In other words, in spite of all of the lobbying and cheerleading from the pro-agent crowd, the reality is that most educational institutions in the US that recruit internationally do not use education agents, for whatever reason.

Beyond education agents

As in many countries, most Vietnamese parents and students have traditionally worked with education agents instead of applying directly to US and other foreign colleges and universities. Why? Because they believe that they need the accurate information and quality guidance that good educational advisers and consultants can provide.

In some cases, maybe they do – for example, if people lack time and are applying to a type of institution whose application process is more labour-intensive than others, such as a boarding school, highly selective liberal arts colleges or a graduate programme. The US higher education system is, after all, vast and, from an outsider’s perspective, indecipherable.

The challenge for families is to find a company that provides quality service at a reasonable cost and, more importantly, one they can trust to do what’s in their children’s best interests – not those of the partner institutions.

This is what we refer to as the fatal flaw in agency-based recruitment, namely that traditional education agents treat institutional partners as their clients, not the parents and students who come to them for advice and guidance.

Aside from a fundamentally flawed model, many education agents are ethically challenged, including some with varied external stamps of approval. Their focus is on short-term profit and they will do almost anything to achieve that goal, calling to mind the maxim “success without integrity is failure”.

As reported by University World News, this includes charging exorbitant fees, misrepresenting partner schools and involving clients as co-conspirators by convincing them of the need to ‘enhance’ an application through the use of fraudulent documents, such as altered or fake transcripts and adviser-written statements of purpose.

What people in every country have in common is that no one wants to be lied to or cheated. Parents are desperately looking for companies they can trust, that will treat them with respect and not cheat them of out of their precious time and money. There are good educational consulting companies out there, but they are few and far between and it’s difficult to choose.

Enter direct applications

A recent trend we’ve noticed and heard about from US higher education colleagues is that growing numbers of Vietnamese students are bypassing education agents and applying directly to the colleges and universities that they are interested in.

Why? Because they are more empowered with more access than ever before to comprehensive and accurate information from online sources, as well as from personal networks of family and friends who are studying overseas.

As international educators, we view this as a positive trend that we should actively promote. It’s a sign that the market is maturing and that consumers – that is, students and parents – are better educated and therefore feel more confident than ever to navigate this process on their own.

Students occasionally ask one co-author, who has lived and worked in Viet Nam since 2005, whether or not they can apply directly. The answer is an enthusiastic ‘Yes’, if they feel sufficiently confident.

This trend does not just involve students from the nation’s talented and gifted schools who are well-informed about highly selective institutions and merit-based scholarship opportunities. Direct application is also something that students applying to US community colleges are doing. Community colleges have an open admission policy for most programmes and therefore a very simple application process. The same is true of ‘English as a Second Language’ programmes.

Since information is power, the question for parents and students is: Do you feel empowered enough to apply on your own without the assistance of a middleman or woman?

The benefits of doing so are considerable, including saving time, possibly money and, in many cases, the aggravation of working with unethical agents in what is still largely an unregulated market where fraud is common.

It is also superb preparation for the experience of studying overseas itself because students applying directly will need to act independently and show initiative. Think of it as ‘preparation lite’ for the life-changing experience of studying and living in a foreign country. While students have access to support services, it is ultimately their initiative and efforts that will determine their success both in and out of the classroom.

Unprecedented access to information

Thanks to the internet and large numbers of young people studying outside their home countries, 4.8 million according to UNESCO (2016), students who are planning to study overseas have myriad resources at their disposal, including websites, social media channels, forums, blogs and the experiences of those who have already been through the process and are happy to share their knowledge and insights.

For example, one of the best online resources for US-bound international students is College Board’s Big Future website. This site correctly states that: “Although there's no magic formula for choosing a college, you can start by asking yourself some questions that help most students find the right fit.”

Indeed, it’s all about finding institutions that are a good fit, namely ones that meet a student’s criteria, including qualifications, interests, priorities, preferences and family ability to pay.

Foreign governments representing the top overseas study destinations via entities such as Study in Australia, the British Council, Campus France, EduCanada, EducationUSA and the German Academic Exchange Service or DAAD, among others, do their part to provide basic information free of charge.

Meanwhile, in lieu of campus visits, which are not possible for most international students, families can take advantage of virtual tours. Moreover, increasingly information is available in a student’s native language, which is of greatest benefit to parents, few of whom read English.

A viable alternative to commissions-based recruitment

Institutions that actively recruit international students should have the requisite staff to handle inquiries and communicate with prospective students synchronously via a variety of chat apps and asynchronously via social media and old-fashioned email.

The less they outsource this important work to education agents, the more control they exercise over the entire soup to nuts process and the better the long-term outcomes in terms of quantity and quality of students. Of course, higher education institutions also save money in the form of commissions not paid to agents.

It’s true that some institutions are in a better position to accomplish this than others. One liberal arts university in the US Midwest with a small recruiting staff has been very successful at recruiting students via direct application in Viet Nam – Vietnamese students now comprise its largest group of international students.

The secrets of this university’s success? Sustained in-country recruiting that includes fair participation, digital marketing, solid relationships with teachers at key source schools, positive word of mouth advertising and a 100% visa issuance rate. Its modest expectations have been exceeded by the impressive number of direct applications it receives.

All of us who work with international students should encourage them to apply directly to foreign education institutions, provided they feel prepared and confident enough to do so. It is their lives and futures at the crossroads, after all. Those who need professional assistance should make sure they choose an experienced company or consultant with high standards, and one who has their best interests at heart.

Dr Mark A Ashwill is managing director of Capstone Vietnam, a full-service educational consulting company with offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in Viet Nam. In the US, Capstone works exclusively with regionally accredited colleges and universities. Ashwill blogs at An International Educator in Viet Nam. Eddie West is executive director of international programs at UC Berkeley Extension. Previously, he served as director of international initiatives at the National Association for College Admission Counseling. West blogs at International Education Insights.