Aggregator recruitment start-ups meet the old order

The developing aggregator picture has some of the hallmarks of a classic movie where the scrappy outsider working from their bedroom takes on the corporate giants with near limitless resources.

One sign is that we are seeing Yocket, a company started in 2015 by four Indian graduates for US$132, taking on ETS, founded in 1947, which had revenues of over US$1 billion in 2019.

Underneath that David versus Goliath headline there are many other factors at play, with most leading to circumstances where many universities find themselves marginalised as active recruiters.

EdAgree is a subsidiary of ETS founded with US$1 million of seed funding from ETS’s corporate investment arm, ETS Strategic Capital. It runs a free platform allowing international students to match with and apply to university with the support of an advisor.

Yocket offers an online platform which helps students find their best fit university and offers counselling along with other support services.

Yocket’s claim of more than 400,000 registered users and over 100 university ‘tie-ups’ looks impressive with EdAgree only boasting nine listed university partners on its website at the time of writing. But the website also promises university partners the benefits of synergy saying: “EdAgree, with ETS, will bring you qualified students who are ready to succeed…”.

Just for good measure, ETS Strategic Capital is also an investor in ApplyBoard, while ETS is a partner of Studyportals.

A fast-changing world

It’s a dizzying world with companies appearing, rising and disappearing in the space of a few years, driven by the hunger for edtech investments and the expectations of significant growth in globally mobile students.

Start-ups since 2015 include the three mentioned above as well as Edvoy (part of IEC Abroad), Leverage Edu and StudentApply, while SchoolApply has risen, been purchased by INTO University Partnerships and then closed in the space of five years.

Longer term stalwarts such as Studyportals, founded in 2008, have responded with ambitions to be seen as ‘the matchmaker’ in higher education.

Their April 2021 blog notes that they have historically focused on generic content, but are trying to move to more personally curated content including scholarship opportunities.

The blog mentions Amazon, Facebook, Twitter and Netflix as inspirations, but it seems likely that the new kids on the ‘university matching’ block have influenced the pace of change.

The dynamics of the sector are still working themselves out, but some trends and tensions seem evident:

Geographical focus – India seems to be the focus of attention which is not surprising as it has been identified by everybody as the most obvious volume growth market for student mobility and the preponderance of graduate students might suggest they are more comfortable and willing to forego involvement with an agent.

Role of agents – Several of the newer players have been vocal in suggesting they are correcting the inefficiency of a disorganised agent market. Most aggregators seem to be reaching out to the agent community and providing a new channel for getting university offers. But savvy agents have been using technology for years and it remains to be seen if the agent powerhouses in China will be easily disrupted by aggregators.

Pathway operators – Much of the recent effort of pathway operators has been to drive revenue through providing direct recruitment to both their pathway partners and as a stand-alone service to other institutions. This route to growth could be blocked if aggregators are able to dominate with students and agents in most countries. Pathway operations may also begin to rely on aggregators – an enquiry to ApplyBoard showed 34 of 97 opportunities identified in a search for UK-based institutions were for pathways.

Aggregating aggregators – The investments related to ETS suggest that there is plenty of potential for big, well-funded players to selectively invest in a portfolio of aggregators by picking off smaller players or investing in start-ups who might be happy to take the money and run. The ETS involvement also offers the potential of vertical integration along the student journey.

Added value

It might be that the winners and losers are those that find the secret sauce of added value which makes them the best choice for nervous students and parents considering study 5,000 miles from home.

The Studyportals model of simply providing information has morphed into a much more bespoke service but seems a long way from Leverage Edu’s claim to offer access to ‘best-matched career and higher education options’, access to 2,000+ personalised mentors, scholarship finding, education loans, accommodation options and long-term mentoring.

Several of the newer entrants also mention employment and career opportunities with the same fanfare as their links to high-quality universities.

There is no doubt that the aggregators have the financial muscle to do whatever they think will fit the bill. Craft, the enterprise intelligence company’s platform of commercial data, shows that there is a tidal wave of money flowing.

Studyportals raised US$5.4 million in 2017, Leverage Edu’s latest funding round in February 2021 was reported to be US$6.5 million taking total funding to US$9.8 million and the ApplyBoard story is well known, with the funding round in September 2020 reported to be US$53.2 million to take the total raised to US$182.4 million.

It leads to an extremely disrupted and fragmented situation for universities which do not have the will or the money to build their brand, their recruitment expertise and their marketing capability to secure students.

Packy McCormick, founder of the Not Boring Club, notes that the “biggest breakout successes created in the first two decades of the 2000s – the aggregators – started by aggregating demand and using that demand to commodify supply”. The point about a commodity is that it is interchangeable with other goods of the same type and it can be argued that degrees from many institutions are very difficult to differentiate.

A zero-sum game?

If the algorithm works, then the degree alternatives offered should all match the student’s academic capabilities with their desire for a specified qualification from a country or countries of their choice.

They will then be able to focus on factors such as cost, visas and post-study work with the security of knowing that their choices have been laid before them.

This should send a chill down the spine of institutions that have relied on the promise of ‘acres of rolling grassland’, ‘years of academic integrity’ or ‘highly regarded professors’ rather than differentiated, relevant courses leading to successful careers.

There is an inevitable and inexorable shift in the axis of power and the pandemic has accelerated the disruption of old norms. Aggregators are here to stay and the only question is the extent to which most universities find themselves caught in a zero-sum game, where attempts to distinguish themselves become more about marketing spend or data on graduate outcomes than nuances of location.

For all but a few, commodification may then be the name of the game.

Alan Preece is an expert in global education, business transformation and operational management and runs the blogging site View from a Bridge.