Getting into a foreign university is the stuff of ambitions, for students and their parents. But check out whether the process is done through consultancies or agencies. There are clear differences. Image Credit: Shutterstock

As more international students seek to study in the US and the odds of getting into top public and private universities have become more difficult to overcome, independent education consultancies and agencies have stepped in to fill the void.

While they ostensibly assist students in their application journeys and securing acceptances to universities, marked differences exist in their business models, approaches, and motivations. The main differentiator is that education consultancies charge a fee to families for their services - but this is their sole and exclusive compensation.

Get exclusive content with Gulf News WhatsApp channel

Their priority is to service the student independently, ethically, and comprehensively - working solely in the student’s and family’s best interests, ensuring that students find the best ‘fit’ for their personality, academic endeavors, and holistic preferences.

This is administered through intensive support, guidance, and mentorship that can span several years, and the family and the consultants work diligently to maintain transparency throughout the process.

Agencies, on the other hand, are paid placement fees from the university for each student that ultimately enrols in the institution. These fees can be a one-time flat fee, a percentage of annual tuition for every year the student is enrolled, and additional bonuses for achieving enrolment milestones.

Since this compensation is performance-based, from the university’s perspective, this is a low-cost strategy to enrol students that the university would otherwise not have access to, boosting their visibility in new or underserved markets. If Transylvania University in Kentucky wants to boost enrolment from India, for example, the easiest way for them to do so would be to sign placement agreements with tens of thousands of local agents, who have a physical presence and access to a ready pool of students, across the country.

Rash of agencies

According to the Times Higher Education, the number of new study abroad agencies that opened in China between mid-December and mid-May of last year exceeded 27,000.

By virtue of this business model, agencies are incentivized to send their students to universities that compensate them with the highest fees - not necessarily to the ones in which they will thrive. Many agencies also charge fees to the families, as well.

While agencies play a critical role in international student recruitment, it is morally and ethically dubious when agencies represent themselves as independent consultancies, which unfortunately is a common practice globally. Students believe they are getting personalized and objective advice, but instead are being directed primarily or exclusively to universities with which they have referral agreements.

Selective working with agents

Nearly two-thirds of US universities now work with agents - but it is highly likely that parents want to send their children to the one-third of US universities that do not. Institutions like UCLA, Columbia, the University of Chicago, and hundreds of others do not need to engage in this practice, as they have a far greater number of qualified applicants than they can take.

When seeking external support on your son’s or daughter’s university application journey, it is prudent to ask the following questions to your potential service provider, to discern whether they are an agency or independent consultancy. While both actors play crucial roles in the admissions process, it is important to have clarity on the nature of the service provider.

There is nothing wrong with choosing an agency, particularly one that provides transparency on their list of partner institutions, as doing so will be a lower-cost alternative to choosing an independent education consultancy and the agent will ensure that all components of your application are complete.

These could be the questions:

  • Are you an agency? Do you have contracts with specific universities? Are you compensated by them for each student placement?
  • Is the only fee you take from the family? Or do you collect a fee from the university, as well?
  • Are you properly certified by the KHDA for this activity?
  • How long have you been in business in the UAE?
  • How many UAE placements have you had at the institutions my son/daughter wants to apply to? Can I speak with some of them?