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International recruitment offices in higher education are making big strides by partnering with agents


Navigating the field of international students is becoming a challenge for many higher education institutions as they face new travel and visa regulations, the hesitation of students and families to study in the United States, and a proposed policy to prohibit accredited institutions from using student-recruitment agents for international recruitment. All of this comes at a time when universities are seeking to increase their enrollment of international students to diversify their student bodies and boost tuition revenue.

Nonetheless, Kirsten Feddersen, the associate vice president of international programs at the Gustafson Center at Southern New Hampshire University, has found success thanks to a strong partnership with recruitment agents. “They are adding a lot of functions that I can’t provide,” says Feddersen. As a former recruitment agency employee, she knows the word “agent” brings with it a lot of misunderstandings from university leadership, who may call into question agents’ role in recruiting students and occasionally their ethical playbook. This has led to many administrators dismissing agents’ often vital assistance in creating a reliable pipeline of suitable international students to a university.

IDP Student Buyer Behavior 2016
IDP Student Buyer Behavior 2016

IDP Education, one of the world’s largest student recruitment agencies, conducts an annual study into student buyer behavior. This study shows that with regards to international student perceptions, the United States compares unfavorably to many other English-speaking destinations when it comes to student safety and visa regulations. Recruitment agents can support institutions by telling a more positive story about studying in the United States and aid in their efforts to help international students navigate the process of applying to college.

“An international student spends on average two years deciding which university and destination country to apply to — often working with an agent throughout the process

What agents do
Research from IDP has shown that an international student spends on average two years deciding which university and destination country to apply to — often working with an agent throughout the process. Agents in the student’s home country are playing a crucial role in connecting with students by helping to navigate paperwork and offering guidance in the student’s native language. “Even in more established markets such as China and India, it can be hard for university recruiters to get around the country and culture; it’s easier for students to have someone local to get advice from and who understands how to handle visas for their departure,” says Arlene Griffiths, director of client relations and business development in the United Kingdom and the United States for IDP.

However, efforts to secure agency partnerships can be met with resistance from university leadership. Some leaders think working with agents is illegal and others are concerned about an agent “double dipping” by charging a student for services and receiving a commission from partner schools.


Students choose to work with agents because they value the additional services an agent can offer. Many students select an agent based on word-of-mouth recommendations from friends and family that have successfully used the same agent in the past. In addition, in several cultures such as China, students and their families perceive that paid services are indicative of a higher value of service: in other words, your cost is your worth. “At IDP we tend to say we are a student-placement organization and set high standards accordingly,” says Griffiths. “We are committed to getting the right match for the student because that will be the right match for our client. Our university partners only pay for results, and so we offer a cost-effective way of growing student numbers with a good return on investment.”

Forming partnerships with agents

A common misconception among some institutions is that pathway providers and agents are mutually exclusive. Pathway providers often assist students with the first two years at a university, helping them acclimate to the culture, deliver academic content and learn English. They may also take over direct responsibility for certain elements of admissions, curriculum and teaching. Agents recruit by supporting the student’s progress from inquiry through to application and eventual journey to the US, including pre-departure briefing sessions. Together, agents and pathway providers can form an integrated approach to international student recruitment. “In many overseas markets pathway providers rely on their front-line agent networks to recruit students. At IDP we enjoy strong relationships with our pathway provider clients and work in partnership,” says Griffiths. Agents tend to have very different organizational missions and therefore operating models when compared to pathway providers; this means that in practice the two collaborate effectively to support universities and students.


Southern New Hampshire University uses its own recruiters and agents for recruiting international students, even forming partnerships with international universities directly — since not every student will use an agent. “A pathway provider may perform agent-like functions but their primary purpose is to provide a pathway to… the degree a student will have at the end of the day,” says Feddersen. “It’s really about getting students to the United States and equipping them with what they need to get on their educational path.”

Even when university leadership agrees upon the usefulness of direct agent partnership, other essential good practice aspects of a partnership must be established. Before signing on the dotted line with an agency, institutions like SNHU take several items into consideration—such as defining the exact responsibility of both the agent and institution and defining the payouts and the duration of the agreement. “I would recommend that an institution work with their own legal department to draft an agency agreement template that reflects the needs of both parties, which can then be used for all future agreements,” says Feddersen.

“We just can’t say we want 10 students, and they produce 10 students. That would be against our holistic practice of finding students,” says George Kacenga, PhD

Once the contract is signed, the relationship-building process between the international office and the agency begins. “We just can’t say we want 10 students, and they produce 10 students. That would be against our holistic practice of finding students,” says George Kacenga, PhD, director of international enrollment management at the University of Colorado at Denver. At CU Denver, they feel their recruitment success came from IDP’s understanding of what their university can offer. “IDP only sent us students who met our standards. That helps when you travel to these countries—you can skip some of the initial qualifiers and get into the substance so the student can figure out if the school is a right fit,” says Kacenga.

Checks and balances

IDP has a client relations team permanently based in the United States who actively travel to the universities they represent. As part of the onboarding process, team members meet in person with stakeholders in the partnership, align strategy and tactics accordingly, and then stay in regular contact with the institution. “We monitor our progress to see how we performed in relation to the strategy agreed with our partners and to identify future joint activity,” says Griffiths.

IDP’s agent certification through the American International Recruitment Council (AIRC) helps provide an additional layer of checks and balances. Agents with a valid AIRC certification have undergone an intense audit of their office locations, policies, and procedures to ensure ethical, high-quality counseling. IDP is fully recertified through 2024. “It’s modeled after the accreditation process so agencies go through a very rigorous process,” says Mike Finnell, the executive director at AIRC. “We think agents should be one of the tools institutions put in their portfolio for recruitment. You have someone there 24/7 in the country to help students make this big decision. A good agency is helping you recruit a student who will be successful.”

A proven partner

IDP was originally established in 1969 as a nonprofit organization. Today with a global network of over 90 offices in more than 30 countries, it is one of the world’s leading student placement organizations and was successfully listed on the Australian Stock Exchange in 2015. IDP has been a working with U.S. university partners since 2009 and was one of the first agencies to be certified by AIRC. To learn more about how IDP could help your institution achieve its international ambitions, visit:

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