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Why Do Families and Prospective Students Use Agents?

Agents serve an important role in the advising of students bound for study abroad. Agents exist because the secondary school systems don’t provide college counseling. Most countries prepare their students for domestic university study by focusing on academics and preparation for the comprehensive board exams that drive student placement. For domestic admissions in Australia and the UK it is the “A level” exam, in China, the Gaokao, in India one of a number of regional standardized board examinations. For domestic students, it’s all about the board exam and offers from universities depend solely on those scores. Students take the test at the end of their 12th year, the scores are posted a month or so later and then begins the university matching process. Universities put out a range of admissions scores, applications made quickly thereafter. It is a mechanical process that has only one criterion for admission, the test score.

Due to these absolutely objective measures, there is no notion of “reach schools” or “safety schools.” Students don’t visit schools to see if they fit, the test score tells them if they’ll fit. The American philosophy of subjective admissions is truly foreign to these students, their parents and teachers and that’s where they look for external advice. Application components like personal statements, extracurricular activities and essays are not part of the domestic college search process and thus need explanation and interpretation, as is the most confusing thing of all – “test optional.” Students wonder, “If a standardized test is required for domestic admissions, what does it mean to have an optional admissions test?” And, “why don’t the American schools accept my board score for admission?”

The confusion doesn’t stop there. Additional confusion comes from the loose way American’s use the term “college.” For most countries, “college” is a pre-university path, a 13th year program designed to bridge gaps in the student’s past experiences and to help a student gain entry into the more respected university. It is a path similar to American community colleges, but what is hard to understand is the way the term “college” is associated with a well-respected 4-year or even graduate school experience.

Another baffling aspect of the US landscape is the subjective role of rankings. By nature of the domestic admissions, schools are ranked based on entrance level board scores, very objective. In the US, rankings are very subjective, based heavily on measures of reputation and not based on board scores. US News, the king of the American rankings has defined categories of schools as “national”, “regional” and “liberal arts,” not necessarily official terms. American schools often discuss Liberal Arts as a focus or philosophy, but in a world focused on entry into the workforce and professional, marketable skills, the concept of Liberal Arts is also foreign.

Somebody is needed to help students and their parents understand these differences and add some clarity and credibility to the process. Because such knowledge and expertise in not housed in public schools and many of the private schools, families need to find this advise from the private sector. Private counseling does exist, but for most families this priced out of reach, so the educational agent has become the primary source of this type of information.

Agents are typically local business people who for years have maintained a storefront or office locations, serving the local population. They are respected members of the local community, often having western degrees themselves or having staff with western degrees. They have frequently travelled to visit universities and provide first-hand accounts of the university environment to families who will most likely never see the campus before their student enrolls. Their offices are tangible reassurance that the student is in good hands and the agent is a person to go in case of trouble while the student is away. The agent is bi-lingual, has business licenses and is invested in the proper treatment of the students. The agent has convenient hours, can be easily reached by phone and is often referred by satisfied neighbors and friends. The agent is a trusted resource in the search for schools.

University recruiters on the other hand are seen as opportunistic, choosing to pay very brief visits to communities, often only at a fair or expo. They often don’t speak the native language and come without knowledge of the local cultures or traditions. They struggle to recognize local transcripts and academic records, often pushing students to third-party credential evaluators. American schools have the added disadvantage of operating through documents that are use “standard” size 8 1/2 x 11 inch paper as opposed to the metric (A4) paper used outside North America.

For undergraduate students, parents play a very important role in the decision making process when it comes to where/what their children will study overseas and parents are generally the ones who fund the whole process. A purely on-line process, or talking to foreign counselors overseas, is not desirable for most parents, many of whom prefer to discuss their children’s study options at length, face to face, with a specialist, preferably one who speaks their language. Brochures and web site are far too general and do not provide a true picture of the institution, nor do they provide enough specific information.

The agent becomes a place for the parents to validate what the student has discovered online or through interaction with their friends. They want some level of assurance that the student will get accepted, especially in light of all the subjective measured used in the admissions process. Parents want someone to provide oversight in the many complex and often confusing aspects of the admissions and enrollment process. EducationUSA and other collective information sources can be helpful in this process, but they are never committal and they never make recommendations. Families want reassurance and they want someone to make promises and agents are the ones a majority of families trust.

This bears repeating, families trust their agents. It is the same kind of trust that a real estate agent or an insurance agent brings to a product. In America, the vast majority of consumers goes to a real estate agent to buy a house or goes to an insurance agent for protection, so it should not be hard to understand how someone half way around the world would want to go to a local business person to help them purchase a higher education degree for their child.

Mark Shay is a business developer with a long history of success helping higher education institutions recruit students. In an illustrative career that has spanned three decades, Shay has served thousands of customers, ranging from individual faculty members and graduate deans, to university presidents and foreign governments. He is well known for balancing the non-commercial spirit of educators with the commercial realities of operating efficiently and effectively using technology to improve results. He founded, and has worked in leadership roles at two universities and IDP Education. He has recently started a consulting practice and is serving as an advisor to AAE. Mark is also the editor of ChinaTrend: Insights into the Higher Education market in China


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