One unfortunate fact of an international program is that the director, no matter how dedicated, and most are, can’t be everywhere in the world at the same time. There are too many places from which to recruit. If you are a student, this means that, at some point, you will most likely have to deal with an international education agent. Education agents are people on the ground in your country, helping to facilitate the connection between you and the school. They will help you with the paperwork of getting into a school, help you prepare necessary information, and serve as your go-between.
This is generally a good thing. The huge majority of agents are honest, and genuinely want to help you. But as with any human endeavor, there are always going to be a few bad apples. This can give every agent a bad name, unfairly. Luckily, there are some tell-tale signs if the agent you are dealing with has your interests in mind, or just their own pocketbook.
Do they have accreditation?
Accreditation basically means that the agent, or agency, has been certified as being above board by an interested group. One such group is the American International Recruitment Council, which has a very strict set of procedures to ascertain whether or not a recruiter is legitimate. If the agency with whom you are working has accreditation, you can be assured that at least someone has decided them worthy.
However, be aware that not having this accreditation doesn’t mean a group is inherently untrustworthy. They could be in the process of getting a certificate, or maybe haven’t even come up on the radar yet. Conversely, having any kind of accreditation doesn’t mean that they can’t run a scam. If this comes up, be sure to check into the group that offered the certificate. In theory, anyone can hand out a prize to themselves, and the trustworthiness of the rating agency is as important as their rating. But there are other cues you can look out for.
Find out how they are compensated
In a debate on the role of international recruiters, Jim Miller of the National Association of College Admission Counseling argues that one of the major issues is recruiters who are paid per student they bring to the school (this concerns students at the college level, but the same issues apply for high schools). He says that there needs to be standards to “minimize incentives that might tempt the counselor or recruiter to compromise her professionalism by advising the student to make an enrollment choice without regard for the student’s interest.” Basically, what this means is that you need to watch out for recruiters who benefit directly from the amount of kids they funnel.
The recruiter doesn’t even have to be inherently corrupt for this to be a problem. It is human nature to want to make money, a societal necessity. To provide for their families, they will want to bring in more and more students, regardless of whether or not you are the right match. So if you want to study science, but the school they represent doesn’t have a strong science program, they might be tempted to oversell the program in order to convince you. This hurts both you and the school. In a perfect world, agents would be paid a straight salary, not one dependent on the amount of students they funnel in. This is the responsibility of the school, but it is something you should find out.
Promising the sun and stars
When meeting with a recruiting agent, the one word you want to be wary of is “absolutely”. There are no absolutes. If an agent guarantees you admission, that is a strong warning sign they are not on the up-and-up. They can say “with your grades and experience you are a strong candidate,” or “I’ve seen many students like you accepted, so I think you have a great chance.” But to promise admission is a sign that they are taking a front-end commission from you, and their work is not dependent on your success.
In terms of compensation, that is fine. After all, we don’t want kids shoveled to schools that don’t match their needs. But you also don’t want people who are going to lead you to a certain point, collect their money, and turn away. This doesn’t help you, and could leave you stranded if the school of your choice- the one promised to you- falls through.
While we’ve focused a lot on negatives today, tomorrow we’ll explore the characteristics of good agents (which are most of them), and how to ensure a quality working relationship with yours. But in the meantime, treat international education agents they way you would anyone: avoid being cynical, but keep your eyes open and clear.
The international student experience is both challenging and exciting. Whether you are a student considering studying in America, their parent, the host family, the Head of School, an international coordinator, or even a potential classmate, there are as many opportunities for confusion as there are to learn. The ISPA is here to help bridge that gap, to ensure that this opportunity and adventure is met with the highest level of success.