September 2013 issue

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US universities and agents

Agents form an important part of recruitment strategies for many US universities, and recent debates have removed some of the controversy surrounding commission payments, discovers Matthew Knott.

While debates within the National Association for College Admission Counselling (Nacac) seemingly move forward towards a slightly more positive view of payments based on course fees (see box), it is nonetheless clear that agents play an increasingly integral recruitment role in the world’s most popular higher education destination.
Ron Cushing, Director of International Services at the University of Cincinnati (UC), OH, says there has been a growing debate over agency usage as institutions look overseas, and is well placed to comment. “UC has been at the centre of this debate since 2005 when we made a bold decision to develop our first international recruitment strategy,” he says. “At the centre of our action plan was the decision to actively engage agents and to compensate them on a commission basis. In doing so, UC became the first major research university in the USA to openly adopt agency-based international student recruiting as a strategy, and we did so while simultaneously leading a national movement for industry standards.”

Cushing explains some of the reasons behind the move. “First, the challenge of trying to be engaged in several major markets at the same time is daunting from a resource perspective. Our staff can only be present in a few locations a few days a year. Having trained and trusted representatives in each market is effective from a cost and operations perspective.” Crucially, UC can see from the students’ perspective that study in the USA is an overwhelming prospect. “There are over 4,000 institutions of higher education in the USA. Prospective students are faced with the formidable task of navigating information over the internet about their options and few have first-hand knowledge of any US institutions. Understandably, these students seek the services of recruiting representatives staffed by local bilingual counsellors, in their local time zone, to help them select the most appropriate institution.”

The local knowledge and expertise of agents is guiding Waynesburg University, PA, towards incorporating them into its recruitment strategy, Bob Barnhart, Admissions Counsellor, advises. “As our admissions staff is fairly small in number, we will definitely be entertaining the possibility of working with agents to bolster our efforts,” he says, adding that as they venture into new markets, agents would have a better understanding of the cultural differences and demands of students and their parents. Local knowledge, expertise and targeted enrolments are the factors that inspire agent usage at Northcentral University, AZ, an institution providing US degrees online, says Alina O’Connor, Senior Director.

At University of California Irvine Extension (UC Irvine), Jenna Sices says, “Each programme varies in the number of students who come through agents, but overall, we estimate that 50-to-60 per cent of our students are referred by agents.” She says their agent relationships provide more than student numbers. “Our agents’ knowledge of their markets is invaluable to us not only in recruiting students in the region, but also in helping us to develop programmes that are effective for these students. Our agents sometimes assist us in developing language-specific or culturally targeted marketing materials or promotions.”

Cushing highlights the extra level of security they obtain from agent partners. “Fraud is prevalent in many markets. We are confident that the transcripts, letters of recommendation, essays and other documents are legitimate when they come from our representatives.” While the recent Report of the Commission in International Student Recruitment to Nacac (see box) states some members are fearful of the potential for fraud by commission-based agents, UC clearly see this issue from the opposite perspective.

“One of the main ways that UC Irvine’s International Program maintains our relationships with existing agents is to consistently visit them to offer training to their staff and counsellors regarding our programmes,” says Sices. “We also regularly send out shipments of marketing materials for their use, and provide other marketing support as requested.” UC Irvine often invites agents to work with them at study abroad fairs, and participates in agent-run fairs. “For those agents we cannot visit in person, we offer comprehensive training via Skype regarding our programmes, processes and procedures.” O’Connor, meanwhile, says, “Agents act as an extension of our university and we spend a lot of time training and communicating frequently.”

“While the use of recruiting representatives has been successful for UC, institutions should understand that it requires substantial investment,” warns Cushing. “Selecting and training the right representatives takes time and resources. Institutions need to evaluate agency operations, collect data from students on satisfaction, and invest in infrastructure.” He adds that in key markets such as China, India and Vietnam, UC has hired country coordinators to provide training, oversight and evaluation of our representative network. He continues, “We visit our partners frequently for training and recruitment purposes, post our agent contact information on our website and charge students discounted application fees if they apply through one of our agents.”

As a newcomer to working with agents, and international recruitment in general, Barnhart says, “I would say that we would be open to exploring agent relationships from any market where we can bring students to Waynesburg University that will be productive members of our family,” although he adds that India, China and Brazil will be major sources they want to explore. Similarly, at Northcentral University, O’Connor says, “We are seeking agents that believe they can recruit students interested in earning a US degree while studying online, located anywhere in the world.” At UC Irvine, meanwhile, Sices says, “We are always on the lookout for productive partnerships everywhere in the world. Currently, we have been focusing much of our efforts in Central and South America, Eastern Europe and select parts of Asia.” And the University of Cincinnati is currently seeking to expand its portfolio in several key markets including Brazil, Iraq and Vietnam, says Cushing.

The institutions contacted for this feature offered some advice for agents looking to work with themselves and US institutions in general. Cushing, for example, says, agencies can take steps to be more attractive. “Their top priority should be demonstrating their knowledge of the US higher education market and their commitment to following industry standards and best practices,” and recommends the American International Recruitment Council (AIRC) certified agent scheme as one way to achieve this.

Barnhart says, “I would advise them [agents] to be completely honest and candid about what they can truly deliver,” adding that they would expect to see an established body of work and references. Sices makes a similar comment: “We hope to work with the best quality partners, so we ask prospective agents to provide us with a background of their organisation and their typical student profile as well as references.” She adds, “We often meet new international representatives through agent workshops, so that is a great way to get in touch with UC Irvine.”

Agent usage at USA universities
Rely on admission staff employed by the institution; do not use agents51%
Do not actively recruit internationally 27%
Use both admission staff and agents 20%
Rely on agents based overseas to recruit international students 2%

Source: NACAC 2010 Admission Trend Survey

Nacac commission on compensation-based international recruitment

The long-running debate over agents for overseas recruitment at universities in the USA may seem puzzling to many agents, especially as agent usage is already well-established at a great number of institutions in the country.

However, it should be stressed that the debate does not centre around partnering agents, rather it is the use of commission payments that has caused controversy, and it has a historical resonance based on the USA’s experience of domestic recruiters in the late 19th and early 20th century, which led to the formation of the National Association for College Admission Counselling (Nacac). The payment of commission for domestic recruitment is outlawed, and some within Nacac have sought to extend this ban to international recruitment.

In 2011, Nacac appointed the commission to examine international recruitment, and withheld any ban while the issue was investigated. As reported (see STM, August 2013, page 6), the commission has proposed the following wording for its Statement of Principles of Good Practice: “Members should not provide [best practice] incentive compensation based on the number of students enrolled internationally.” Although, the language might be considered derogatory for many reputable agencies, the wording is an advance upon the “may not”. The report admits that any other course of action would be impossible. “The commission has recommended that the association maintains a healthy concern over the potential effects of commissioned recruiting, while acknowledging the current state of international recruitment by removing the absolute restriction in favour of a more nuanced, best practice stance.”

Figures provided in the commission report, based on Nacac’s 2010 Admission Trends survey, reveal that 21.8 per cent of institutions used agents, although the poll found 26.8 per cent were not actively recruiting overseas. The report also highlighted a 2011 survey of Chinese students that found 57 per cent has used an agent for assistance in their application. Indeed, the report highlights may of the ways that agents provide an essential service, but also expressed some remaining concerns. “While not all commission members agreed that problems were endemic to the practice of incentive compensation, members generally agreed that there were circumstances under which incentive compensation could prove problematic by exacerbating tendencies towards misbehaviour.” It lists such examples including high-pressure sales and conflicts of interest. Nacac was due to vote on accepting the commission’s recommendations during its annual meeting this month in Toronto.

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