In recent posts I have focussed on the increasing  use of education agents by educational institutions in the US.

As I dived deeper into the issue a couple of key questions emerged.

1. Of those institutions that are dealing with agents how many have policies in place that reflect best practice (eg in line with the NACAC Guide or AIRC Guidlines)? 

As more US institutions start to use agents we are seeing a real difference in how they approach building and managing an agent channel. Some institutions clearly have solid policies in place, but many clearly don’t.

2. For institutions that do have policies and procedures in place, how many have software solutions that support implementation?

Based on our discussions with others, and our own experience, many US institutions are using email as the primary tool to manage agents, with engagement often being irregular. On the other hand, many Australian institutions use a dedicated agent portal, which enables them to communicate easily and systematically with agents, deliver agent training, and monitor agent performance etc.

Expert views

To get some better insight on these questions I approached three experts and asked them for their views. My sincere thanks goes to each of them for their willingness to assist.

1. Of those institutions that are dealing with agents how many have policies in place that reflect best practice (eg in line with the NACAC Guide or AIRC Guidlines)? 

APH: Every institution has its own admissions policies, recruiting style, and internal culture. Therefore I’m not surprised to say that institutions also vary extremely between their approach to best practices in agent management.

We have to remember that unlike in Australia, where the government actually monitors agents, this is new territory for many institutions. There are many layers to complicate the issue.

For instance, there are institutions with a strong international student recruitment mission who have been aware of the use of agents for years, even before NACAC released its statements. These institutions have their finger on the pulse of international recruitment trends and the intercultural nuances of international marketing in general. These institutions are likely already poised to have best practices for agent management.

Then you have institutions – good institutions – who are new to the international student recruitment field in general. They are just now turning to the idea of bolstering their populations with international students.

So you have two very complex subjects being tackled at the same time – international recruitment and marketing in general and the use of agents in general. That can be very difficult and involves a lot of trial and error by institutions. This can be frustrating, especially for newcomers to the field – you feel like you have to figure things out as you go along.

Added to this the often “one-person office” syndrome in many institutions or the institutional attitude of “Bring us more international students and then we will increase your budget, but not before,” and institutions who do not already have a solid background in agent management may feel frustrated.

You have to remember too that AIRC, although it’s a fantastic organization, doesn’t really provide much in the way of agent management from the university perspective or setting standards for the universities themselves – there aren’t any “rules” or “guidance” telling the university how to be a better partner. The focus is more on the agency and the agency meeting AIRC’s standards for accreditation.

If a university isn’t good at communicating with its partners, it may be symbolic of a poor relationship, but that institution isn’t violating any standards. It’s left to the individual employees at the institution to personally take it upon themselves to strive for better communication and partnerships. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – I wouldn’t want another university telling me what my admissions standards “should” be, so additional policies like agent management should also be left to the individual universities to decide their policies. But there are definitely challenges along the way.

RG: Who is the international enrollment manager, the same person overseeing domestic admissions or the SIO? If the former, NACAC will likely play a larger role in the decision-making process. If the latter, AIRC.

Each institution handles agent relationships differently depending upon type (public v.s. private) and location (e.g., SUNY has system-wide guidance. UNC -- if memory serves -- does not.)

RF: Practice and experience in working effectively with agents varies widely. It can really run the gamut from teams who have never worked with agents before and are just now exploring the option, all the way to seasoned and experienced teams who have visited most of the markets in which IDP operates, know the sector very well, and have their own agent management systems and procedures.

Difficult to say how many reflect "best practice," but falling short of best practice is usually a function of uneven agent adoption. In other words, there are more schools who simply don't have practices in place at all than there are schools with "bad" or subpar practices in place.


2. For institutions that do have policies and procedures in place, how many have software solutions that support implementation?

APH: I don’t have the data to support my answer but I would say most do not. We only recently started using an agent management portal, and that was because it was with a current partner who came up with the idea and added to his existing software services.

Again, this comes down to institutional and personal culture. If an institution does not view the agent-university partnership as a two-way relationship, they may not think to even institute an agent management portal. For some institutions, they sign an agent agreement and forget about the partnership.

Investing (at the very least time, but often financially as well) in an agent management portal requires the institution to take on a serious role in communicating their institution’s culture, policies, and procedures. Many institutions aren’t at that point yet where they can really dedicate this type of time.

The key for institutions is looking at their time investment as leading to a long-term payoff: a little extra time spent on developing relationships will lead to increased student enrollments in the future. We spend a lot of time developing our student and high school counselor relationships – why not do the same for agents?

RG: I have heard of software solutions -- maybe through Terra Dotta -- but I have never used any. A robust CRM could probably be modified for such a purpose but integrating a system like that with the payment of commissions is likely too much for the standard systems currently used (e.g., Banner, PeopleSoft, J-bar, etc.). I used a compilation of Office Apps to manage the partnerships.

Yes, to email, though, for AIRC members the communication is likely more frequent. Infrequent communication is likely due to the partnership not being productive.

Uni of Cincinnati maintains a robust database and portal, but I think it was a home-grown solution. Not every institution will have the resources to create one even if the partnership is active.

RF: There are only a handful (single digits) of partners that come to mind with functional, high-performing agent management software.

At IDP, this is less important for us because we have a custom-built Oracle CRM system that allows us to produce data insights, accountability and transparency in ways that obviate a duplicate system on the part of the university.

Of course, smaller one-market agents may not have such a system and it would be more beneficial to those relationships for the HEI to maintain one. Certainly it offers clarity in terms of invoicing, pipeline reports, resolving commission issues, etc. when at least one party has one, and all the better when the two can compare notes.

A closing thought is that our most successful partnerships are not necessarily with the best-ranked schools or the schools in the most desirable geographic locations, but those with the most regular engagement and two-way communication. In my personal opinion, an agent management system of some kind can help externalize and regulate communication and engagement so that it doesn't go out the door when staff members move on.

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  1. Manages risk – by giving you tools to protect your brand and reputation by monitoring agent engagement and performance.

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