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The use of education recruitment agents is on the rise for international students enrolling in US universities. However, the rapid growth of this market hasn’t come without controversy. Much debate has surrounded the transparency, accountability, and integrity of these agents. In response, professional organisations such as NACAC, American International Recruitment Council (AIRC), and NAFSA have all laid out guidelines and best practices for working with commission-based agents. Now, new research by World Education Services (WES) is giving insight into the experiences of foreign students who have utilised education recruiting agents.

Who uses education agents?

WES surveyed 5,880 international students representing five regions and over 50 countries. Some were currently enrolled in US universities, while others were still planning to enrol. Of the respondents, 23% (1336 students) used recruitment agents during the application process. Undergraduate students were more likely (83%) to utilise an agent than graduate students (73%). Nearly three in four respondents working with agents said the main thing they were seeking was “knowledge and expertise of US admission guidelines and education system.”

The costs and value for students

Agents offer a variety of services through the initial prospecting phase, application phase, and enrolment/pre-arrival phase. The most popular phase for utilising an agent was the prospecting phase when decisions are made regarding which schools and programs to apply for (84%). Students from South and Central Asia were most likely to seek assistance during this phase. Most respondents (83%) were overall satisfied with the services and indicated that their expectations were met.

Almost half of all respondents (45%) paid USD $500 or less for agents’ services; another 35% paid between $501 and $5,000. Those who paid the highest amount were twice as likely to feel dissatisfied with the service received. However, 70% of respondents said they felt the service was reasonably priced.

Independent vs. Institutional education agents

WES notes that most the debate has focused on agents who receive a commission from institutions. However, their survey found that the majority of students (70%) use independent agents. Complaints against agents differed according to the agents’ business model. For example, students who employed independent agents reported more issues with their business operations- including unresponsiveness, unclear financial arrangements, and misrepresentation of information related to institutions.  Students who utilised university sponsored agents were more likely to feel agents conveyed “unrealistic expectations about on-campus jobs and/or scholarship opportunities.” Twenty-seven percent said financial arrangements were not clear with these agents.

WES Recommendations

Based on their findings, WES recommends that universities try to understand how students from different regions interact with agents. Their survey pinpointed unique needs for students based on their region and stage of the admission process. They also advise that universities thoroughly vet their commissioned agents and consider how independent agents can be kept up to date with the specifics of the university. Furthermore, WES recommended educating parents and prospective students about agents, and their business models, through the university website.