Agencies are acting as headhunters for institutions abroad and at the same time charging student clients, meaning they can earn huge amounts of money. But stakeholders have suggested the use of commission-based agents needs to be made more transparent.
“Most people don’t know that [agents are] double-dipping, and I think that is very concerning,” explained Nicole Ribeiro, who has several years of experience in the Brazilian sector and is founder and executive director of Pico Educacional.
“Students and families have no idea that [agents are] getting paid headhunter fees”
Even some of the best known and most expensive agencies that “sell themselves as ‘I will help your kid succeed on his path’” don’t necessarily say they are getting kick-backs from the schools, she said.
“In Brazil, there is sometimes a kind of commoditising of students in education without the students knowing,” Ribeiro added.
“Students and families have no idea that [agents are] getting paid headhunter fees. They think that the money they’re paying is everything that this company is getting,” she indicated.
Now in a country that is increasingly being seen as a good source of international students, more untrained agents are advising students to study abroad, principal CEO of EDGE College Counseling, Emily Dobson warned.
“What has sped up is people coming in and saying, ‘I know how to help these kids’, and charging fortunes…but not having any credentials at all to do so.
“[Agencies] double dip, which is – if you know your credentials – against the rules,” she said.
However, students are not always accepted in all schools they apply for and even when they are accepted, sometimes they decide not to take the offer.
“When this happens there will be no commission paid,” one agent in Brazil told The PIE.
The majority of schools pay commissions only after the students have been studying for one to two months – if the student withdraws early after arrival, no commission will be paid, they added.
“A good consultant will motivate students to apply for universities that do not offer representation agreements, so the agency would [be] compensated for their service because the university will not pay any commission,” the agent said.
“Brazilian consumers research a lot. And during these periods, they request a lot of [information],” Cris Zanin of Yonder Education explained.
“It’s very common that the agent gives great service for months, and afterwards they discover that the student closed the deal with another organisation.”
But even more concerning is schools getting “kick-backs” from universities, Ribeiro at Pico Educacional said.
“Some private Brazilian national curriculum schools are frequently being approached by American universities to create partnerships for easy access where the school receives a finder’s fee from the university.
“It’s not just the agents. It’s very hard to know who to trust for advice,” she noted.
Students pay for, and expect, a list of their best-fit schools. “They’re not aware that universities are paying to end up on that list. They think the agent is giving them a list based on experience, their personality, on several things,” Ribeiro said.
There is a growing number of agencies in Brazil that help to access student visas in order to work in the US “semi-legally”, she added.
“These agents know which community colleges and which language programs don’t check attendance, and will basically rubber stamp to say you’re a student.”
Another issue is that parents who have put their own children through college have decided they’re ready to become college counsellors, Dobson at EDGE warned.
“It’s particularly saturated in São Paulo. People are doing jobs they shouldn’t be doing because they don’t know what it takes in different countries.”
Clients need to know what to check before hiring somebody, she added. Without credentials from organisations like International ACAC, HECA, IAEA or TABS, “we think that you shouldn’t be able to work with kids”.
“The use of commission-based agents is too embedded. They don’t think about some of the poor ethics that can come with that”
In the US, the Common App should introduce a question asking whether applicants have worked with an outside consultant or counsellor, she suggested.
“We want people to start being accountable,” Dobson stated.
Founder of The University Guys David Hawkins said that, as an independent university adviser, charging families – and not taking commissions from institutions – was “the only ethical way” of operating.
“It gets very murky, this area of double-dipping,” Hawkins added.
He said that particularly in the British context, the sector is very used to working in a model that focuses on commission.
“The use of commission-based agents is too embedded. They don’t think about some of the poor ethics that can come with that. I find it quite worrying. I think the trend [in Brazil] is replicated worldwide really.”