Q: How to Choose an Education Agent? A: Use Your Best Judgement

education-agents
Image courtesy of ETN Focus Workshops

And Don’t Forget the Tried-and-True Carrot & Stick Approach

Colleagues sometimes ask me to recommend education agents in Viet Nam. While I’d like to be able to help them in this regard, I can’t.  The simple reason is that this is such a problematic (read shady) and unregulated sector.  There is no one (or one company) that I can honestly vouch for.

If they ask me about a particular company, all that I can say it that I haven’t heard or read anything bad about that company, if that is indeed the case.  Some are well-established and have been around for a long time.  If I know that a specific company has been engaged in unethical or even illegal activity, I can share that information. (I rely on documented evidence not hearsay or gossip.)

My advice to colleagues is simple and straightforward.  Apply rigorous screening criteria and use your own best judgement, including intuition, a valuable yet underestimated quality.  Do prospective agents treat students and parents as clients and not their partner institutions, which pay them a per-head commission?  Do they counsel or script students when it comes to the visa interview preparation?  What do colleagues have to say about company A, B, or C?

Don’t rely on any external “stamps of approval,” which are limited in value for a host of reasons, including the (in)ability to monitor the activities of “certified” agents.  (Examples of naughty yet “certified” agents provide ample grist for another post or even a full-length article.  That’s an article waiting to be written by some enterprising investigative journalist.)

Here are some relevant articles and posts I’ve written: 

Walking the walk – Ethical agency-based recruitment (12.12.14)

Buyer beware – Advice for international students (15.7.16)

Take responsibility for ensuring ethical recruitment (30.9.16)

The Tip of the Iceberg? “China’s New Oriental accused of US application fraud”  (21.12.16)

Hold your education agents to your high standards, stay in frequent touch, and keep the lines of communication open.  Trust, if you have a reason to, but always verify.  Use the tried-and-true carrot and stick approach.  Business is based on trust, which is inextricably linked to integrity, relationship and performance.  If they don’t meet your high expectations, there are other fish in the sea.

Finally, don’t put too many of your international student recruitment eggs in the education agent basket, especially in competitive markets like Viet Nam.  You will also need to invest time and money in non-commission-based recruitment tools and techniques.

Peace, MAA

 

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Direct Applications on the Rise

education-agentsWhile Viet Nam is still primarily an agent-driven market, growing numbers of students are beginning to bypass education agents and apply directly to educational institutions, especially for certain types of institutions and programs with simpler application procedures.  In some cases, more than 50% of all apps are directly from students.

The reasons for this recent trend are increased access to information, both on- and offline, more confidence, and greater sophistication.  Given the quality and ethical problems that plague many education agents, the more Vietnamese students (and international students, in general) who apply directly, the better.  

There are some students who don’t require the services of an education agent, thereby saving money and sparing both student and parent the potential aggravation of working with dodgy agents.  They include academically talented students who have done their homework, so to speak, and know which institutions they want on their short list, as well as those who know exactly which school they want to attend because of their participation in a fair, info session, or based on a recommendation from someone they trust, e.g., a parent, teacher, or friend. 

This is an encouraging win-win trend, in my opinion, that should be promoted.  It gives students and parents more control over the entire process, eliminates the need to work with an agent, many of whom do not have students’ (and parents’) best interests at heart, and saves admitting institutions the cost of a commission.  What’s not to like?     

Peace, MAA

How Many Students Will You Send Us?

globeI occasionally receive inquiries from colleagues asking me how many students will I refer to their institutions by a certain term, i.e., semester or quarter.  The assumption behind the question is that the company I work for, Capstone Vietnam, a full-service educational consulting company, follows the traditional agent model of student recruitment. 

In fact, we have our own unique model that views students and parents as clients not partner institutions that happen to pay a per head commission.  This means we don’t drive, or pressure, students to attend a partner school but rather look for “best fit” schools, regardless of their status.

If a student ends up attending a partner institution, we refund our fee to the parents because we receive a commission later.  If s/he enrolls in a non-partner school, we retain the fee because that’s how we get paid for the service.  It’s an ethical approach to educational advising that also makes financial sense. 

That’s part of the answer.

educated consumerAnother is that growing numbers of Vietnamese students are applying directly to certain types of educational institutions, thereby bypassing educational consulting companies.  This is a positive trend that I applaud.  (It includes students who attend Capstone events.)  More power to them, in my opinion.  It reminds me of a slogan from a now defunct US discount retail clothing store chain, SYMS, that was ingrained in my memory, thanks to persistent and pervasive marketing:  An Educated Consumer is our Best Customer

MAA

Of Dogs, Fleas, & the Occasionally Dirty Business of International Student Recruitment

A Deal with the Devil aka Partners in Unethical Behavior?

quote-he-that-lieth-down-with-dogs-shall-rise-up-with-fleas-benjamin-franklin-35-31-10Discussions about the use of commission-based recruitment and international student recruitment in general are often couched in black and white terms.  The former refers to the unethical business practices of many education agents whose overriding goal is money, and lots of it as quickly as possible, by hook or by crook.  The latter refers to institutional colleagues who are generally assumed to be above the fray and often the victims of unscrupulous and nefarious agents. 

It may not be “breaking news”,” but it’s certainly underreported news that quite a few education colleagues are not choosy about their partners as long as the student pipeline flows freely.  The end justifies the means, in other words.  In the spirit of “it takes two to tango,” they cross that tainted line as soon as they decide to work with a particular company,  in spite of having proof of wrongdoing on the part of said company. 

Since such agents recruit students in a way that puts partner schools’ interests first, students are not always well-informed about the admitting institution and therefore not always pleased with what they discover.  (This of course is one of the fundamental flaws of traditional commission-based recruitment.)

This can result in lackluster student retention and negative word-of-mouth advertising, which reflect poorly on both the school and the agent.  That’s the long-term view.  The short-term end result is that the institution gets its student(s) and the agent gets its commission(s). 

Aside from agents, there are other education companies for whom cheating is a way of doing business.  An example I’ve cited in the past is one foreign company that essentially bribed students to attend its fair by offering a cash payment to each attendee who brought a friend. That clearly crossed the line from incentive to bribe, wouldn’t you agree?

Those colleagues who choose to work with unethical education agents are co-conspirators, no better than their partners in crime, conjuring up the image evoked by this instructive and timeless quote from Benjamin Franklin:  He that lieth down with dogs, shall rise up with fleas.  Best to avoid the dogs and therefore the fleas.

MAA

The Education Agent Issue in the US: Like a Bad Penny

bad pennyIt’s reminiscent of those trick candles that delight children and adults alike.  (OK, some adults.)  You blow them out and they continue to relight themselves – like magic!  While the US was late to the agent debate, actions that have been taken to date, while most would agree represent progress, have clearly not assuaged everyone’s concerns about the academic well-being of students who are, or should be, after all, front and center for those of us who are involved in educational advising.  

With the recent Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) draft policy (PDF), which would prohibit its accredited institutions from using incentive-based compensation in international student recruitment, it appears that “it ain’t over till it’s over” regarding this contentious issue.

MSCHE, which accredits 525 institutions in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, and Washington, D.C., has essentially chosen to extend the Title IV restrictions on incentive-based compensation that apply to domestic student recruitment to international students.

msche logoAside from being a shot across the bow of supporters of agency-based recruitment, what are the practical implications of this policy move?  Will it make a difference?  Is this rule binding?  Probably not, but MSCHE-accredited institutions would be well-advised to follow it lest an infraction become a sticking point in their (re)accreditation.  Will the other regional accrediting agencies follow in MSCHE’s regulatory footsteps?  Only time will tell. (Regional accreditation is the gold standard of institutional accreditation in the US.)

Once again, this raises a fundamental question that advocates of commission-based recruitment tend to ignore, or believe can be addressed with band-aid solutions that often amount to nothing more than window dressing.  Is it even possible to regulate this often shady global industry?  Stay tuned!

MAA