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It’s six years since the US allowed commission-based agents. So what do colleges think?

August 12, 2019

Among the world’s major education providers, the US has always been something of an outlier when it comes to agents. As agent numbers surged in Australia, New Zealand and the UK, it was only in 2013 that the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) lifted a ban on commissioned agents recruiting international students. The State Department took another five years to endorse them. 

The landscape has changed a lot since then but the admissions body is still keeping a close eye on things. The latest example of this is new research released in July 2019 with several interesting takeaways for agents.

More than half of the industry is using or interested in using agents

One of the most interesting revelations in NACAC’s Use of Commission-based Agents in the Recruitment of International Students research brief is a snapshot of industry practices and attitudes over the past three years. 

The association has surveyed almost 500 colleges on a range of topics and more than a third (35.6%) say they are already using agents. From a complete ban to a third of the market in six years is a radical change. Better yet, for the most part those working with agents already appear to be pleased with the results. 

The vast majority rated agents either considerably (39%) or moderately (36%) important for student recruitment. Perhaps even more promising is the 27% of the remaining institutions who say they’re actively considering becoming involved with agents.

But it’s not all good news

Among the pleasing stats are some concerning notes for anyone looking to partner with US colleges. While overall numbers are reasonably strong for use of education agents and appear to be improving, they plummet among more selective, and presumably prestigious institutions. 

Almost half (49.2%) of colleges that accept more than 70% of applicants already use agents but of colleges who accept less than half of the students who apply, less than 8% do so.  The results are almost identical when asked whether they are considering using agents. 

Websites and email remain king for recruitment and the report also notes a growing tendency for colleges to pare back the number of agents they’re dealing with. While on a broad scale this is obviously a concern, it will also hopefully lead to stronger and more valuable agent-institution connections.

NACAC treads a cautious line

In keeping with the organisation’s now-year-long acceptance of commission-based agents, NACAC starts off its summary of the results on a positive note, highlighting the benefits these agents can bring. Essentially, they open up large parts of the world to different colleges and can be valuable resources for students:

“Commissioned agents allow institutions to establish a local presence in strategic regions abroad, and to meet growing enrolment targets, oftentimes with limited budgets. From a student perspective, commissioned agents may be a main source of guidance for many families in countries that lack a significant presence of school-based college counsellors, independent educational consultants, and college fairs.”

But the organisation also maintains a “healthy concern”, urging caution about the inherent risks to reputation, finances and even accurate information: 

“Despite the benefits, there are inherent risks to students and institutions. For students who interact with agents, these include financial risk, misinformation risk, and the risk of being referred to an institution based not upon what is educationally and socially best for them, but, rather, what is financially advantageous for the agent. Risks to institutions include financial, legal, and reputational risk.” 

The policy question

NACAC is keen for providers to carefully evaluate whether commissioned agents are right for them, through the lenses of current enrolment practices, campus readiness, and other recruitment options.  

It also stresses the “critical” importance of developing and running protocols and policies in line with best practice to work with their agents. The organisation has asked a range of questions about agent policies and ends up being severely critical of some of the responses. Namely, the organisation criticises the 72% of schools who have not listed agency partners on student-facing websites.

“It is alarming that just over a quarter of institutions that work with agents do,” the association says.

“One of the biggest concerns with commission-based recruitment is the lack of transparency around the practice,” NACAC writes. 

“Namely, that students and families are unaware of the financial relationship between agents and the institutions for which they recruit, as well as the potential influence this can have on the guidance they receive.”

In all, the report is a valuable, broad-strokes look at the US higher education industry and worth taking a deeper look at.

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