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

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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

“International recruitment offices in higher education are making big strides by partnering with agents”

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Now here’s something you don’t see every day, an advertorial or infomercial, if you will, in The Chronicle of Higher Education (CHE), the weekly “bible” of US higher education.  Here’s the deal:  IDP, in this case, pays a lot of money ($11k) to place an article about how great it is for colleges and universities to work with education agents as a key part of their international student recruitment strategy.   This benefits CHE’s bottom line and IDP pushes its message out to anyone who’s anyone in US higher education and beyond.

When I first saw the headline and the article, my first reaction was “Wow!”, until I saw this caveat in small print a split second later:  Paid for and created by IDP.  This issue and IDP acquire a patina of honor, credibility, and respect by publishing this piece of paid advertising in an august publication, while the latter gets a wire transfer, obviously the short end of a stick that measures important intangibles in life. 

Memo to CHE:  In the future, increase the font size of the disclaimer and put it in bold red.

MAA

Meet the new boss, similar to the old boss: new agent regulations unveiled in Vietnam

logo-newerVietnam is a country in flux and the international education sector is no exception. In fact, it is a case study of changes and reforms. Mark Ashwill, the MD of Capstone Vietnam, looks at the current regulatory system for education agencies and what consultants must do to succeed in this exciting market.

This is the introduction to my latest PIE News blog post.  Follow this link to read the article in its entirety.

MAA

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

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This is an excellent survey conducted by World Education Services (WES) about the use of education agents by students around the world – with the exception of Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa.

Here’s a brief note about their analysis, including some caveats.

Survey results are broken down by region of origin. We compare results for students from the top two sub-regions of origin – South and Central Asia, and East Asia – as well as from several major world regions: Sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, and Latin America and the Caribbean. *

The survey examines services used at different points in the enrollment funnel – discovery, application, and enrollment. It also provides insights into the different types of education agents used by international students in different parts of the world. These include institution-sponsored agents – those who receive commissions from or have a contract or agreement with U.S. institutions; and independent educational agents – those who are paid by the students and their families.

* Response rates from Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa were very low, thus findings are not discussed with one or two exceptions.

It paints a very mixed picture of agent use by survey respondents and highlights some of the fundamental flaws of agency-based recruitment. 

Follow this link to read the article in its entirety. 

As an aside, a recent trend I’ve noticed in Viet Nam is that of increasing numbers of students bypassing agents and applying directly to US colleges and universities.  (I view this as positive, by the way.)  Possible reasons include greater access to quality information and, consequently, more confidence on the part of students and their parents.  There is also the realization among many that the application procedures of some types of institutions are very simple.  Finally, many students have done their homework, know exactly where they want to go, and therefore have no need for an intermediary.  Survey, anyone?

MAA