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What do international students actually think about education agents?

June 17, 2019

Let’s face it, we’d all pay to be a fly on the wall of an international student’s mind as they navigate their way through what will be one of the most exciting experiences of their life.

How are they feeling? What do they think about the people who help them get there? Did you - the education agent - make the right impact in their lives? What do they say about you?

But there are hints, research and opinions out there.

One recent piece of US research found more than half of students picked their education agent by word of mouth. Another highlighted a student whose experience was so positive, they went back to the same agent three times.

What students think about education agents’ work is more than just a passing curiosity. It’s critical to improving services and continuing to find and recruit clients.

In most of the world’s major education markets, the data suggests more and more students and educators are turning to agents to help find the right fit.

This is what students think of those efforts so far.

The good stuff students are saying about agents

For the most part, recent cohorts have been loving what they’ve been getting from agents. In World Education News and Reviews’ oft-cited 2017 study, 83% of students heading to the US were satisfied or very satisfied with their agent’s work.

That same survey found a similar rate of students felt they were being fairly charged for the service and praised their agent’s ability to recommend “best-fit” schools.

“More than 80% of respondents agreed that their agents recommended best fit schools, and that they provided current, accurate, and honest information,” the survey found.

Almost three quarters of students were looking for “knowledge and expertise about US admission guidelines and the education system” and 55 per cent picked their agent based on word of mouth.

The US is still fairly new to the acceptance of commissioned agents, so only 23% of students used an agent. But that number is growing, particularly on the university side. Interestingly, US-bound students have been opting for “independent” agents over institution-sponsored operators by about two-thirds to one but they’ve been more satisfied with the school-based agents’ knowledge.

“Institutions expect and demand some level of accountability from the agents with whom they have formal, contractual arrangements, and that they tend to keep those agents up to date on needed information; independent agents lack both contractual accountability, and easily available sources of information,” the WENR report noted.

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“[The agent] provided me with necessary guidance, and educated me on the process” Decoding International Students’ Experiences With Education Agents: Insights for U.S. Institutions.

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The governments of Australia and New Zealand both recently highlighted the importance of agents to the process of attracting international students, as they rolled out agent performance evaluation and recognition programs.

In Australia, agent use rose from 61% of international higher education students to 71% in just four years from 2013. Our recent Cohort Go Aussie Study Experience Report revealed while more students were consulting with friends (57%) and family (51%) before moving to Australia than with agents, it was the agents’ advice they ended up appreciating the most.

Almost exactly one-third of respondents said agents had provided the most relevant information about moving to Australia, versus just 20% for family and 25% for friends.

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Sourced from voluntary records by education providers in PRISMS. Source: https://docs.education.gov.au/system/files/doc/other/policy_paper_agent_data_publication_1.pdf

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In Canada, where agent use was about 41% at the time, a 2014 study identified a range of reasons students offered for choosing expert help. They included agents’ experience and competence with paperwork and processes and their relationships with schools and embassies.

Many other students felt the investment was worth it because it hastened the application process and saved them time. As Pakistani graduate student Yasmin told the researchers: “with an agent involved, you don't have to search by yourself. They serve you ready-made cooked food.”

Another student said: “It saved me a lot of trouble. First, I applied to the agency. I went for an interview with them, where they asked me questions. I filled out some forms and then they did everything else. All I needed to do is to give them my passport, school records, and money.”

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“They did not make any false promises, and were upfront about telling me that my ability, profile and GRE score would make the difference, and that they had no role in the admission process. They were there to help me in making informed decisions.”

Decoding International Students’ Experiences With Education Agents: Insights for U.S. Institutions

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The not so good stuff

Of course, the news isn’t all good. Despite big differences in the prevalence, behaviour and regulation of education agents in different countries, a few major concerns kept popping up: transparency, quality control and price.

The concerns around transparency often began not with students but with regulators or governments. But it would be naive to think those concerns wouldn’t flow on to potential clients. Both Australia and New Zealand are introducing more legislation into the sector and US researchers have highlighted concerns about the potential for Chinese students, in particular, to be exploited.

The same Canadian report that highlighted how useful agents could be for inbound foreign students also noted major concerns about cost, a smaller selection of options and, most importantly, trust that agents would act in the best interests of students and not themselves.

While that research is specific to Canada, the lessons taken from it have global applications. Cost is obviously a matter for individual agents but concerns about conflicts of interest and selection highlight the importance of communicating exactly what’s on offer. That can apply to fees, services, and particularly which institutions you do and don’t have access to or good relationships with.

The same WENR survey highlighted three major concerns among students: unresponsiveness to student queries, unclear financial terms or fees, and inaccurate or misrepresented information. Those figures were “significantly higher” for the two-thirds of students who worked with independent agents.

“Much of the conversation about education agents focuses on those who are institution-sponsored. However, our findings indicate that far the greatest percentage of students work with independent agents,” the report concluded.

One final recurring student concern across jurisdictions was a lack of regulation, a subject that intersects closely with transparency and quality. There’s not much an individual agent can do to address this point except to be prepared for more regulation and to operate as transparently as possible in the meantime to build confidence in the service.