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White paper best practices for grad programs using student recruiting agents


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White paper for universities, their graduate and professional schools on how to get the most from student recruitment agents. Describes how agents work and gives some guidance on what to look for …

White paper for universities, their graduate and professional schools on how to get the most from student recruitment agents. Describes how agents work and gives some guidance on what to look for when considering agent use. Agents aren't for everyone, this paper addresses the pros and cons of agent use from the post-grad, graduate and professional school perspective.

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  • 1. Best Practices in the Use of Student Recruiting Agents by Graduate Schools and Programs Mark Shay International Marketing and Student Recruitment Consultant
  • 2. Executive Summary: In 2012 international undergraduate student enrollment surpassed that of international graduate students in the United States, a significant milestone in the changing landscape of student recruiting. While international graduate student enrollment has grown modestly over recent years, the sharp rise in the demand for American undergraduate programs overseas has drawn some universities to focus on different types of recruiting tactics. One such tactic is the use of independent third-party recruiters, commonly referred to as agents. Agents, operating under contract with the university, serve as an extension of the admissions process, offering a physical presence overseas and serving as a gateway between university processes and local factors such as language, time zone differences and cultures. Agents give the university the ability to serve the student without the high cost associated with employing foreign staff. Agents also provide families with assurance that the decisions facing them in university selection are the same as promised in the university marketing material and messages. It is widely believed that the majority of international students do use agents in some capacity and there is strong demand for quality agents worldwide. For graduate programs, especially those in research or highly specialized fields, effective usage of agents can be more difficult than for undergraduate programs. Agents may be limited in their subject expertise and can find it difficult to provide in-depth advice on a specific graduate program. Most international students recognize this and utilize the agent differently than would an undergraduate student. Use of agents by universities outside the USA is very common and their use has increasingly become part of international student recruiting strategies for American universities. NACAC reports that one-quarter to one-third of its members use agents, ICEF reports over 500 American colleges and universities contract with agents and there are nearly 200 institutional members of AIRC. In 2013, QS, a international student recruiting company, commissioned this white paper to explore how graduate schools, departments and programs can best utilize agents and realize the advantages of such local representatives. The paper was reissued in 2014 by the author. The use of agents is much more commonplace for undergraduate admissions departments than for the graduate sector, so the company offers this white paper to help raise awareness of the practice and outline the resources and potential costs necessary to make such partnerships successful. This paper takes a positive tone with regards to agents; however, it is not intended to be an advocacy piece or designed to encourage institutions to use agents. It is offered to help institutions avoid problems, as agents are independent, self-interested third parties that can present significant risk to an institution. Thorough examination of these risks measured against possible rewards is suggested before engaging in agent use. Best Practices in the Use of Student Recruiting Agents by Graduate Schools and Programs Mark Shay, International Marketing and Student Recruitment Consultant - reissued February 2014 2
  • 3. Who are agents, how do they work? Agents come in a variety of shapes and sizes and are widely understood to be a vital part of a families search for education abroad. The term "agents" embodies that of guidance counselor, career counselor, independent consultant, recruiter and local representative. An agent can range from part-time alumni, sole-proprietor, family-run business all the way to large, multi-national corporations with shares listed on stock markets. For the purposes of this paper, we will define agents as those people who work on behalf of a university and whose role it is to recruit students to that university under terms defined in a contract. Universities and agents agree to contract terms in advance and once engaged, the agent adds the institution to its portfolio of institutions that it promotes locally. The most recognizable analogies for this form of representation are insurance agencies, realtors and employment agencies, stockbrokers and travel agents, each who earn a commission based on a successful sale. "Just as more homes are sold through real estate agents rather than owners trying to handle the process themselves, or book publishers are more likely to accept manuscripts submitted by literary agents rather than by the authors, research is emerging that shows lesser known institutions typically have more success increasing their international enrollments with the use of agents than by recruiting solely on their own." - John Deupree, Executive Director American International Recruitment Council A commission-based model allows universities to extend their recruiting efforts with modest up-front investment. It allows campuses to postpone compensation to the recruiter until after the admitted students have successfully enrolled and paid their tuition. It also offers institutions the ability to recruit in places where word of mouth and local presence are key factors in the family's process of selecting universities. Agents provide fast, direct access to specific local markets, expanding the reach of the university. Agents do not just provide students in quantity; they can also impact student quality. If managed well, agents can save work and time for admissions departments. Carl Herrin, a former education consultant who has worked with agents and represented universities at agent fairs overseas states "a university is not abdicating anything by using an agent as the admissions decision is still that of the university." Herrin suggests "good agents can help extend an institution's brand that otherwise has little chance of developing on its own. Agents who have credibility in their local markets can help an institution gain recognition and it is the lesser known departments, divisions and unranked and unknown institutions that have the most to gain in this equation." The use of agents for recruiting international students is legal in the United States. The Federal regulations surrounding financial aid commonly referred to as Title IV prohibit the use of agents for students using federal financial aid. It also specifies that international activity is exempt from federal regulations, which sits as the law of the land. Some states prohibit their public universities from paying direct commission based on tuition price, but do allow for marketing fees and even unit-based finders fees to be paid to third parties. In professional circles, especially in NACAC, there is debate about the Best Practices in the Use of Student Recruiting Agents by Graduate Schools and Programs Mark Shay, International Marketing and Student Recruitment Consultant - reissued February 2014 3
  • 4. "ethics" of agent use, but the law is clear, use of agents for the recruitment of international students is legal. Technically the issue raised by NACAC is not the use of agents, but rather their form of payment. Some further reading suggestions on the topic are included in the appendix of this paper. Agent's consumer market-share, and impact on enrollment Agents are an industry widely recognized worldwide. Commission-based agents have been utilized by American universities for decades, and the practice is nearly commonplace for non-credit English language programs. Agents have become effective promoters of executive education programs and are increasingly important in recruiting students for classroom-based or taught Master's programs. Agency recruitment is the predominant mode utilized by America’s leading higher education competitors – the UK and Australia – as well as New Zealand, Ireland, Canada, and the emerging higher education markets of Singapore, China and Malaysia. It is estimated that one quarter to one third of all university students to Australia are placed by IDP, that country's largest agent. In countries like China and India, estimates are that 60 to 80% of international students utilize agents. Agents become successful when they are viewed as trustworthy and accountable to the student's well-being and are often used for the benefit of the parents and spouses (in the case of graduate students.) Trust comes from providing advice in their own local language and customs, at a long-standing office or storefront as respected members of their local community. Much of the attraction comes from the fact that agents just don't promote universities; they give advice and counseling for free. They (or their trained staff) are familiar with a range of university programs and able to make a good match. They typically represent a variety of programs, viewed as a portfolio designed to give students an acceptable level of choice. Some agents may specialize in a market segment like graduate school; others try to offer a wide range of options including universities from a wide range of countries. Of course, not all students use agents, and not all students find their "right fit" through the agent. Today, it is in fact reasonable to assume that all prospective students start their search for higher education online and find no simple answers. Online exploration helps students start building impressions, but lack of clarity pushes them to seek opinions from trusted resources like friends, family and teachers. Students also seek validation from third-party resources like web directories, rankings and visits to fairs to reach some form of opinion. An agent comes into the picture at some point in this process as an arbitrator, validator and mechanism to complete the process. It is our opinion that agent marketshare is essentially zero at the student's first interest and close to 90% by the time they board their departure flight. A number of very local factors influence the level of agent adoption. These include agent reputation, university support of the agent, plus social, cultural, economic as well as emotional factors. Some families' view "their agents" as a measure of social standing while other students choose to be individualistic and avoid what they may view as agent Best Practices in the Use of Student Recruiting Agents by Graduate Schools and Programs Mark Shay, International Marketing and Student Recruitment Consultant - reissued February 2014 4
  • 5. coercion. There are growing numbers of DIY (Do it yourself) students and trends toward increased use of technology (web directories, social media, etc.) that affect the international market, just like they do in the domestic market. Student Satisfaction with Agents (Agent Barometer) In a recent i-Graduate International Student Barometer, 465 prospective US-bound master's and professional degree students reported using agents for the following services: Assist in their application (75%) Identify appropriate institutions (50%) Visa application and interview preparation (48%) Critique of required essays (33%) Assessment of educational credentials (30%) Seventy prospective US-bound doctoral degree students were identified in the survey and reported using agents for the following services: Assist in their application (60%) Assessment of educational credentials (40%) Identify appropriate institutions (36%) Visa application and interview preparation (26%) Communication regarding other processes (24%) 85% of the US-bound masters and professional students and 88% of the US-bound doctoral students stated that the agent's services were good or very good. When asked to respond to the prompt: "the agent reduced my overall costs (application fee waivers, money exchange discounts, etc.)" 61% of undergraduate students, 45% Masters/Professional and 69% Doctoral bound students said yes. * The above material courtesy of i-graduate, part of the Tribal Group. Copyright "International Student Barometer USA, Fall 2012" Training and Maintain Relations with Agents (Role of Faculty, Alumni and Researchers) Use of an agent is by no means a substitute for institutional involvement. Most agents refer to those institutions they represent as their "partners." Agent knowledge of an institution is limited, especially at program level and absolutely at doctoral level. As the i-Graduate data suggests, students use agents differently at each level of education. Expertise varies widely from country to country and from agent to agent, but it fair to assume the majority of agent counselors have not visited an American campus, let alone all campuses in a given agent's portfolio. Agents are in constant need of training and familiarization, which becomes a real stumbling block in university use of agents, especially with lower volume graduate placement. It therefore may be more effective for Best Practices in the Use of Student Recruiting Agents by Graduate Schools and Programs Mark Shay, International Marketing and Student Recruitment Consultant - reissued February 2014 5
  • 6. a graduate program or admissions office to understand these limitations and take steps to be more proactive with agents. Further suggestions for improved results include: - Universities should list their agents on their university web sites and clearly state if agent contracts extend to graduate schools, and if so, list which programs cooperate with agents and which ones do not. - For Ph.D. programs, web sites and literature should state that students should be responsible for finding their own faculty advisor (supervisor) and agents should be directed to let the faculty and student connect first. Graduate programs should look for agents who understand and support this strategy. - Communication from the university's international office to faculty should inform them of the benefits of agent use and suggest that the agent's local office is a resource for their overseas activity. Agents can serve as guides, interpreters and can become effective partners with faculty if the faculty reciprocates and brings the agent some student leads. Agents can stand in at a conference, and help staff at recruiting events. Agent offices are generally centrally located and become good, neutral places to meet the student. Agents can coordinate interviews and take some of the awkwardness out of cultural differences. - Respond quickly. Worldwide universities admit students on a defined calendar, but for international students, effective recruiting is done on a rolling basis. The current norm for processing and deciding on a student's application is TEN DAYS. A survey by one leading agent showed that 70% of students accepted the first offer they received. Agents will seem pushy here, they will be persistent in their follow-up as they know the student may be using another agent to get that student to another university and they don't want to fail to deliver for the student. - Be absolutely transparent as possible about work-study, scholarship and assistantships. Agents will ask for application fee waivers, special scholarships and other student incentives. As the i-Graduate survey shows, this is a primary draw for students and undoubtedly a major factor in their satisfaction with the agent. Publish these incentives on your web site and direct inquiries to your agents. Remember, agents in this role can relieve some burden from your front line staff. Good agents love inquiries from institutions, they call them leads! - Many international students have heard about CBT and OPT, programs designed to let international students find employment off campus. OPT is especially desired by professional degree students who are not sponsored by companies or governments. OPT presents a great way to help pay for their studies and institutions that offer strong support for OPT will be more successful in recruiting and will give the agents a real differentiation point for your university over others. Best Practices in the Use of Student Recruiting Agents by Graduate Schools and Programs Mark Shay, International Marketing and Student Recruitment Consultant - reissued February 2014 6
  • 7. Building a Win-Win Relationship with the Agent As with any good partnership, each party contributes and each party benefits. Using this as the guiding principle in your dealings with an agent will lead to success. Simply stated, agents are important because the students and families trust them more than they trust the universities. If universities can capture the trust of the agent, that trust will be impeded in the local market. A number of institutions create training manuals for their agents, which becomes the primary reference point for agent staff. If your university has contracted with agents, those in graduate administration should contribute to these documents and look to update them annually. Work with those on university staff who communicate with agents and use their newsletters and less formal email updates to keep your agents informed of programs with space available, programs whose deadlines have been extended as well as to announce programs that are not accepting applications. Also be proactive in communicating programs that are eager to receive international students. It is an agent's goal to place students, so knowing that a program is closed to outside students or extremely competitive is quite helpful. Your university will post admissions requirements, but the agent wants to know what's needed to be admitted. If a specific program is willing to consider students at the minimum requirement, let the agent know. If the admissions are so competitive and selective, let the agent know that as well. Agents typically operate from a high visibility storefront location in a central business district and are proactive in their promotion of their client portfolio, but agents are always looking for more support from their university partners. James Goonan, Director of International & Graduate Admissions at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University has for years worked with agents overseas and has been quite successful in using student names to engage his agents. His recommendations include "taking student inquiries from our web sites or local fairs and offering them to local representatives with the caveat that I need to see sincere efforts to bring those students to ERAU or the next year I'll give the leads to another representative. Providing leads builds great loyalty from my agents and has them much more accountable to me. I visit my best agents at least once per year and have candid review sessions regarding my expectations and their performance." Case Study – University of Cincinnati As described above, successful use of agents requires an investment to be effective. The University of Cincinnati is one of more proactive users of agents in the United States and years of investment have only recently started to provide significant return. At a session at the 2013 AIEA conference, UC's Ron Cushing outlined the numerous steps the university has taken over the years to build and support a vibrant agent network and the costs were significant and the infrastructure substantial. A computer system called UCosmic was established to administer and track agent performance. Agents need significant training from the university for their counselors and need contributions to the agents "knowledge base" (brochures, viewbooks, database systems). Agents like to have Best Practices in the Use of Student Recruiting Agents by Graduate Schools and Programs Mark Shay, International Marketing and Student Recruitment Consultant - reissued February 2014 7
  • 8. their university partners present in their markets and often request them to be part of local exhibitions, fairs or road shows. Ron Cushing stated: "When UC started this process, they were mostly unknown overseas. Through hard work and steady contributions from a team of seven staff, we are now seeing graduates returning to their home countries and becoming successful, which is the true testimonial to a university's success. UC now has hundreds of additional international students on campus because of agents and this investment, started seven years ago, is now bringing substantial returns to the university." While there is no standard approach to using agents, there are some estimates of cost. A viable commission/finders fee/placement fee is in the range of $2,000-$2,500 per student. The costs to the university are tied to volume; more agents mean more university travel, more students require more counselors, more support staff and more administrative resources like accounting. It is not unrealistic to think that these costs are equal to that of the commission, making the total cost to recruit a international student through an agent in the range of $4-5,000. In Summary, Are agents right for you? – looking at the right fit, cases for and against use of agents As many of the student surveys suggest, students trust and recognize agents in their search for advanced degrees. Many applications come to universities from agents without the agent being identified through a service model similar to that of a consultant. Some universities recognize agents but won't pay them commission, but will provide them with application fee waivers, fast track decision-making and other preferential treatment. Others will employ the agent, to directly recruit and represent their university locally through contracts. It is a complex decision. No matter what the approach, an agent strategy should be declared and be made public, especially for students. If your institution is new to using agents, it is important to focus on quality and the integrity of the agents. Ask for references and review the agent's portfolio of clients so you can determine where you fit. Just as you seek diversity in your student population, you should seek diversity in your agent portfolio and develop a mix of big, multi-country corporate agents and some small niche agencies. You should establish a mix of countries and be pro-active in your management of them and appoint ones "Beyond the financial dangers, perhaps the biggest risk of an outside service is in the damage an uninformed representative can do to a brand. If a representative is located in another country, working with multiple universities, and taking no time to visit any of them, the representative can fail to grasp the essence of the institution, and therefore fail to properly promote it. Misrepresenting facts or details, potentially resulting in lost applicants, is a minor consequence of this. Being associated with an institution while practicing unethical behavior and therefore degrading the overseas reputation of the university is a major one, which could cause irreparable damage, or at least require a crisis management team to spend time and money trying to repair it." - Geoffrey Bannister, President, Hawaii Pacific University Best Practices in the Use of Student Recruiting Agents by Graduate Schools and Programs Mark Shay, International Marketing and Student Recruitment Consultant - reissued February 2014 8
  • 9. that can demonstrate a real understanding of your institution and develop a realistic marketing plan for you in the markets they serve. Work to establish marketing plans with the agent and develop leverage with your other marketing initiatives. Use faculty to support training, have faculty provide leads to your agents. Communicate regularly with your agents and pass your agents communications back to your departments and programs. Understand that there is a cost to commence a relationship with an agent, money and time invested in the local market to start things off. As you start to see results, realize there is additional investment needed to solidify this and to build a lasting return on your investment. Also understand that sometimes the agent just isn't a good fit, it is better to end an unproductive arrangement than it is to simply extend it. In the long run this is better for the agent and your institution. Best Practices in the Use of Student Recruiting Agents by Graduate Schools and Programs Mark Shay, International Marketing and Student Recruitment Consultant - reissued February 2014 9
  • 10. References, Sources and Further Reading: ICEF i-Graduate Agent Barometer "Working with agents" by Cheryl Darrup-Boychuk, NAFSA Resource Library, Aug.2010 Why students Use agents- Demand and Supply Nov 2012, British Council 5 Lessons from Australia on International Agents Sept. 1, 2011 (Chronicle of Higher Education) Why Students use agents and other insights fort 2012, ICEF Monitor, March 1, 2012 Guide to good practice for education agents, British Council, American International Recruitment Council, Presentations and Resources United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), EFA Global Monitoring Report IDP Corporate Results via SEEK, Ltd FY12 Full Year Results Presentation – Best Practices in International Student Recruitment and Retention in Anglophone Countries, Hanover Research: Best Practices in the Use of Student Recruiting Agents by Graduate Schools and Programs Mark Shay, International Marketing and Student Recruitment Consultant - reissued February 2014 10
  • 11. About the Author: Mark Shay is an entrepreneur who has built a number of successful higher education businesses including his latest venture, Abroad101 where he and another investor acquired the firm in December 2013. Mark has worked at two universities and IDP, the world's largest student placement firm and QS, a leading international student-marketing firm. In addition to his role as general manager at Abroad101, Mark offers consulting services for those institutions looking to include student recruitment agents in their internationalization strategies. Special thanks to two others who worked with Mark in developing QS Advance and who contributed to this paper: John Molony is now Executive Director, International at Deakin University. He was formerly Vice-President with QS and is based at the company's London headquarters. John is an international education expert with extensive experience and networks across the world. He has held leadership positions at Macquarie University and La Trobe University in Australia and is a regular presenter at international education conferences and has conducted numerous seminars and consultancies for universities and governments. Gaurav Mittal is Country Advisor for Southbank Institute of Technology, Brisbane, Australia through Sannams S4. He worked with Mark and John as Assistant VicePresident for Admissions Counseling Services at Manya Group at the company's New Delhi headquarters. Gaurav Mittal, is a native of India with a MBA from Virginia Tech. Contact: Mark Shay +1-610-357-4648 Best Practices in the Use of Student Recruiting Agents by Graduate Schools and Programs Mark Shay, International Marketing and Student Recruitment Consultant - reissued February 2014 11