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MIAMI -- Agents to recruit international students may be like global rankings of universities, suggested William Lawton in a presentation here Wednesday. "Even if you don't like the look of them, they are here to stay," said Lawton, of the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, a think tank.

Lawton presented data on a survey on the use of agents in seven nations, and said he wanted to focus on the United States, which has been "an outlier" on agents until recently, with many leading colleges and universities resistant to their use. Lawton's group is based in Britain and he spoke about agents at Going Global, the international education meeting of the British Council, which like its counterparts in Australia, Canada and elsewhere operates in an environment in which the use of agents is "routine."

In September, the National Association for College Admission Counseling lifted its longstanding ban on American colleges using agents who are paid at least in part on commission. The data presented here -- collected before the NACAC vote -- reinforce a view that agents had already become a significant player in recruiting foreign students to the United States, and that their influence is likely to grow (and may exceed what colleges think it to be).

In a 2012 survey by the Observatory of 181 colleges and universities in seven countries, the American colleges and universities reported that only 11 percent of international students had been recruited through agents. That is the smallest share of the countries surveyed, which include nations that are competing with the United States for a larger share of the international student market.

Proportion of International Students Recruited With Agents

Country Percentage
Australia 53%
Canada 41%
Malaysia 56%
Netherlands 20%
New Zealand 47%
United Kingdom 38%
United States 11%

Other data discussed Tuesday, however, suggest that these figures may understate the impact of agents -- and the growth of the use of agents to enroll at institutions in the United States.

i-Graduate, a consulting group with which the Observatory is affiliated, asks international students in various countries whether various tools or resources were key factors in making their decision on where to enroll. And 28 percent of those in the United States said that agents were a key factor.

This may be possible without the knowledge of the college officials who reported that only 11 percent of their international students were recruited through agents. That is because many agents are employed by potential applicants and their families, and they may be recommending colleges and helping students apply to colleges that they don't officially represent or have any relationship with.

The i-Graduate data show remarkable growth in the share of international students who cite an agent as playing a key role in deciding where to enroll, compared to the role of college and university websites. In 2007, only 4 percent of international students in the United States identified agents as having played a major role in in their choice of college. That was in contrast to 43 percent who cited college and university websites.

In 2013, the figures were 28 percent each for agents and websites.

Further, i-Graduate asked agents whether they anticipated sending more students, roughly the same number of students or a reduced number of students to various countries. The United States was the country for which the greatest share of agents -- 81 percent -- anticipated sending more students than in the last year.

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