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At their best, agents perform a much-needed service for the international student.  Some studies suggest that about 80% of students in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America use agents when they consider applying for admission to schools outside their home country.   And the US is one of the most frequent destination countries that students consider.   So, many university administrators ask, what’s the problem?  Our web site has all the information a student needs to apply for admission.  Except for the international student, it doesn’t.

What’s missing?  Some of the most basic information that a university may believe a student already knows.  For instance, where, exactly, is the location?  The United States is a huge place with over 2500 four year colleges and universities.  The student may have heard of New York or California but may not know specifically where they’re located.   And the student may have no clue about where North Carolina or Michigan is.  What about the programs?  How does one compare one program to another?  When are applications due?  What qualifications must a student have?  How does a student translate his or her academic credentials into something a US university can interpret? What test scores are required and what are optional?  What about costs?   What are the all-in costs:  not just tuition, room, and board, but travel, incidental living costs, books, and equipment?   Are scholarships available?  What about internship programs?  Does the institution offer classes to improve English skills?  If not, where can the student find such programs? Agents address all of these things and more.

The reality is that applying to US universities is not for the faint-hearted. International students who arrive on the shores of the United States to pursue their educational dreams are dogged and persistent in their efforts. In many cases, in their formative years they dream about studying in the US and start the planning process several years ahead of their departure. It is a high stakes and expensive pursuit that students are willing to pursue because the rewards can be long-lasting and extraordinary. In many cases, these students have overcome huge challenges and committed their life savings to pursue their dream in the US. Not all, but many will have their dedicated agent to thank for it.

OK, so maybe agents perform a useful service for international students.  But how does this translate into value for the US college or university?   To understand that, you need to know how agents get paid.  Many receive a fee for their advice from the student.  So there’s a direct link between service performed and payment received.  The student is the customer.  But many agents get paid by commission from a university when a student enrolls at that institution.  In this case the university is the customer but only when a student enrolls.  So the agent’s strategy is often to throw as many international students at an institution as possible hoping quantity will win out over quality.  This does not serve the student particularly well and it requires the institution to wade through applications and credentials that are often misguided or impenetrable.

So, how to find the right agent?  First, ask yourself the following questions.

  • What is the agent’s compensation?
  • How long has the agent been in business?
  • How many employees does the agent have?
  • Where does the agent operate?  What geographies does he/she cover?
  • How many students has the agent served in the last year?  How many students have applied?  How many enrolled?
  • Are the students seeking undergraduate or graduate programs?  Does the agent specialize in certain kinds of disciplines (engineering, business, sciences, etc.)?

Then, be prepared, in the absence of some expert advice, to spend several years determining which of your agents (and you should use several) are performing the job.  Along the way, treat them as part of your team.  They will appreciate updated information on programs, recruiting status requests, and applications in process.  They – at least the good ones – will want to know about applicants that they refer.  Are they qualified?  Are there some things that the agent could be doing better with respect to guiding the students?  What is the agent doing well?

Of course, agents are not the only resource that a University can or should use.  We will leave that discussion for another time.

If you are involved in recruiting international students for your institution, chances are your experience with the use of agents is spotty at best.  But for many students interested in continuing their studies in the US, agents are an essential service.

To understand why, let’s pretend you are a US student looking to study abroad and your only tool is the internet, which apart from agents is the only tool available to most international students.  You visit the institutional websites of a particular country (China or India would be a great example) and try to locate universities in these countries that offer, for example, a program about the economics of developing nations.  Then you compare and evaluate the academic rigor of these programs, quality of faculty, application deadlines, tuition and living costs, documents required, institutional rankings, living arrangements, local customs, financial aid and scholarships, placement data, safety issues, visa procedures, and other important criteria.

Assume that you found and understood the information provided by these websites, including terms and terminologies used in the foreign country (unlikely);  and that there were no language barriers (unlikely);  that you were knowledgeable about the educational system of this country (unlikely); that you found all the information you were looking for where you expected to find it with no broken links or outdated information (unlikely); that the information was comprehensive (unlikely);  and that at the end of it you were able to do a meaningful comparison of the different institutions of interest to you. (unlikely).

Next, layer this with opinions and reviews found on blogs and online forums about these institutions and their programs. Now imagine making an irreversible, extremely expensive, life-changing decision based on the information gathered from websites and online forums and then convincing parents, spouses, and extended family to invest large sums of money to study abroad.

So agents perform a valuable service for international students.  But what about US colleges and universities?  How are they served?  The trick is to find the right kind of agent.  And they’re hard to find.  How do you do that?  That’s the subject of our next post.

Quick, see if you can answer these questions without help.

  1. What nation in Europe contributes more students to US colleges and universities than any other in the region?
  2. Over the last 10 years, what nation has had the largest increase in students to the US of any other nation in the world?
  3. Over the last 4 years, what nation has contributed the largest increase in students to the US?
  4. What nations contribute the overwhelming proportion of their US-bound students to undergraduate programs?


  1. Turkey (more than 25% greater  than Germany, the UK, and France)
  2. Viet Nam (50% annual growth rate)
  3. Iran (25% annual growth rate)
  4. Viet Nam and Saudi Arabia (81% and 75% respectively)

The answers may surprise you unless you look carefully at the data.  The point is that beyond China and India, it’s not obvious to many US colleges and universities how countries contribute students to US schools.  And even once having analyzed the data, they may not tell you exactly why.

Let’s look at some examples.  As a general matter, countries that are enjoying an economic boom but whose universities are at capacity or offer limited programs tend to contribute more students.  This explains the growth from Turkey and Viet Nam.  Sometimes government policy helps.  Even though Iran actively discourages students from applying to European and US universities, the US recently eliminated its single entry visa policy that prohibited Iranian students from leaving the US during their studies without losing their visas.  And the UK is beginning to cut back on the number of student visas it issues.  In the case of Saudi Arabia, the government has encouraged its students to attend US schools.  In the case of Viet Nam with 75% of its US students attending an undergraduate program,  its “colleges” are considered no better than trade schools and its universities largely cater to graduate study.

Things change and so will the conditions that explain current trends in international student mobility.  The key is diversification and watchfulness.   Universities that seek international students need networks that cover a variety of countries to position themselves for the ebb and flow of change from one year to the other.   And they must have an eye on the uniqueness of each country.  Most colleges and universities don’t have the resources for such coverage and vigilance.  And they would benefit from using organizations that do.

China is by far the leading supplier of students to US institutions of higher education.  Out of roughly 725,000 international students in the US, almost 22% are from China.  The next largest supplier country is India with 14%.  And that gap is widening.  In 2010/11, for instance, there were 30,000 more Chinese students in the US compared to the previous year;  while every other country, except Saudi Arabia but including India, had very little year on year increase.  Given that the total number of international students in the US has risen by 24% in 5 years, the conclusion is irresistible: if US colleges or universities want to look for international students, concentrate on China.

But before we embrace that belief, consider the example of US and Western European automobile manufacturing firms.  For them, China represented a similar gold mine.  Beginning in the 1990s, these firms set up Joint Ventures or wholly owned enterprises in China to exploit the low cost structure.  Most of the goods produced were exported, bringing much needed currency back to China.  Then these same manufacturers began to recognize the size and potential of the Chinese market and began tooling operations for domestic production.  In both of these trends, the government of China was an active participant.  They welcomed the development of a local manufacturing presence, and they exacted a price for it:  either requiring a joint venture operating structure, or the royalty free use of intellectual property, or both.  This hastened the process of technology transfer: Chinese workers became very familiar with Western manufacturing techniques and Chinese engineers and scientists got first-hand experience in the latest technologies and best practices.   This technology “spillover” allowed Chinese companies, licensed by the government, to develop their own technical capability, which enabled them to compete with the foreign owned firms.  Now, for instance, 9 of the top 20 automobile manufacturers expected to increase market share by 2016, come from China.

The Chinese government didn’t just stumble into this development cycle.  Unlike those of us in the West, whose horizon of the future rarely goes beyond 5 years, the Chinese believe in the long view, the 100 year strategic plan.  And the Chinese government is an active player in formulating and implementing this plan:  funding research, facilitating technology transfer, building the manufacturing and service economy that will one day, no doubt soon, make China into the largest economy in the world.

So how does this apply to international students in China?  The Chinese government knows that
China’s traditional pedagogical reliance on memorization and rote learning is incompatible with technological development.   That requires creative thinking, the ability to work on teams, the training that combines ideas from various scientific and business disciplines.  And where to find such educational experiences?  Most developed countries in general, and the US in particular.   The US is an English speaking country in a world where English is the lingua franca.  The US still holds its place as having the best collection of colleges and universities in the world and the US attracts about 20% of all international students.   But it’s not just class room training that attracts them.  It is the opportunity for work – as interns, as temporary or permanent employees.  The work reinforces the learning and it provides the invaluable experience of returning home – and most of them return home – having worked in the US.

Since the Chinese government is such an active player in economic development, since it sees the enormous importance of education as it is found in the US, and since only the government grants permission for students to study abroad, US institutions of higher learning benefit.  But the question is for how long?  Given that the Chinese government is seeking self-sufficiency, at what point is a degree from a US college or university less important than one from China?  At what point does the Chinese government turn off the spigot?


I am not suggesting that US colleges and universities ignore the market for students in China.  China is a huge market and it needs to educate its people at the finest universities its students can find.  But I am saying that US colleges and universities should begin looking to other countries to recruit students.  After all, it takes years to build an effective and reliable pipeline.  There are differences in the educational needs of other countries that must be learned.  There are cultural differences that demand discrete ways of marketing to other countries.  It takes time to build partnerships with key in-country organizations so that the students can be directed to the appropriate college or university.

US institutions of higher learning will be an attraction for the international student for years.  And these students will become an increasingly importance source of enrollments, both to fill vacant seats, and as full payers of tuition.  These institutions need to be plan-full about their approach.  They need to have a Chinese-like long view.  And this view will include some near term steps that are relatively easy to implement, and which will form the building blocks for future capabilities and programs that will continue to attract international students for years.

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