Written by Kenneth H. Chen.
In March 2019, the exposure of a college admissions scandal shocked American society and the world. The FBI charged over 50 people for a bribery scheme in which parents paid college coaches and admission consultants to help their children gain an advantage in college admissions. In April 2019, the Wall Street Journal further reported that parents from China allegedly paid millions of dollars to “college consultants” in exchange for guaranteed access to universities. The news prompted an examination of the economics behind the college admission process and raised the question: “Are we witnessing the emergence a whole new scamming industry in college admissions?”
Intuitively we might believe that the scandal was orchestrated deliberately by opportunists intending to cheat the system. However, my fieldwork reveals a slightly different story. In my interviewee’s own eyes, agents are not cheaters. Instead, they are the foot soldiers clearing obstacles for disadvantaged students. As one of my interviewees, is an education agent in Taiwan, said: “No admission process can engineer conditions so well that all potential pupils have access to quality education opportunities. My job is merely leveling the game [for my students]. My role is to help Taiwanese students overcome their disadvantages as foreigners and help them rebrand themselves in the application materials.”
Which story is more accurate? What are the social implications of hiring third-party agents in the international admission process? To address these questions, I conducted interviews and participant observation with education agents in Taiwan focusing on the work and meaning-making processes of education agents’ professions. Domestic education consulting firms are a familiar subject of debates at both national and institution levels, but my study instead tries to address the potential outreach of the education industry in international admission and recruitment. My findings suggest that the act of emotional and cultural brokerage, rather than the act of cheating or deception, constitutes the primary venues for the main routines and transactions of these education agents. My findings also show that the unique features of education agents are associated with their unique position as brokers in the transnational education sector.
Taiwanese Education Agents
The term “education agent” broadly refers to a paid individual or consulting firm helping prospective students to enroll in foreign educational institutions. These agents are also referred to as education consultants or education brokers, and provide a variety of travel, cultural, academic, and personal services to international students and families. This third-party private sector of the education industry exerts an outsized influence over the international student admission process and has recently attracted as much interest as controversy in media and academia.
The emergence of Taiwan’s education agent market was part of a more significant global trend of the commercialisation of higher education. The unprecedented growth in international student numbers represents a significant departure from the 1980s international-aid model where Western developed countries are taking the lead in recruiting and hosting international students. Partly in the face of diminishing state support, changing public management demand, and in identifying recruitment of international students as the new lucrative market, international student recruitment and placement has developed into a multi-billion dollar industry depending on higher education and student circulations across the globe. Similar private sectors have also emerged in other regions, collectively developing into a global market for international students from Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.
The case of Taiwanese education agents is of particular interest for two reasons. First, their presence highlights educational scholars’ long-held concerns that despite a strong belief in meritocracy, the college admission process exacerbates class stratification. Education agents might turn opportunities for studying abroad into lucrative business opportunities at the expense of those unwilling to hire an agent. Second, education agent business operations resonates with economic sociologists’ prime interests in how culture influences market structure and perceptions. Education agents are cultural brokers because they help international applicants determine unique cultural demands and assimilate mainstream cultural identities in their destination countries. At the same time, such agents allegedly teach students how to circumvent admission standards, norms and criteria that would disadvantage students. In other words, the role of an education agent is to walk a fine line between professional assistance and cheating.
Education Agents as Brokers of Culture and Skills
My fieldwork uncovered the critical functions played by Taiwanese education agents in sending international students abroad. These education agents served as mediators of students and parents’ feelings, emotions, and relationship with others. Studies show that middle-class parents and children are calculative and anxious about seeking college education abroad. The combination of poor support from schools and the lack of knowledge of foreign education systems often leads to high level of anxiety amongst parents and students. Education agents fill the knowledge gap by providing personal service and emotional support for families during the contentious admission process.
Western readers rarely think about how much preparation goes into sending a non-English speaking international student abroad. Not only do international students have to spend years working on academic credentials and standardised exams, they must also endure tremendous uncertainty and anxiety during the admission process. Furthermore, for many international students, admission to universities abroad means transforming themselves into a cultural identity more appealing in the admission competitions. These preparations do not occur overnight nor in vacuum. In my interviews, one agent explained how she often spent months or years cultivating students’ personalities, extra-curricular experience, English abilities, and academic credentials before the actual admission process. Another agent gave an example of how he constantly moderates competing educational aspirations between parents and children. Without these agents, applicants and parents are left flying blind amid uncertainties, emotional distress, and interpersonal tension in families during admission. To such end, I argue that agents are crucial brokers of risks, emotions and family relationships, particularly for applicant families.
In the case of Taiwanese students, education agents play a pivotal role in helping a student learn to embody individualism and assimilate to Western perceptions of individual excellence. Agents coach Taiwanese students to transform geographical disadvantages into likable cultural traits. For instance, one agent narrates helping students bridge different cultural understandings of “self” in writing admission essays. The agent commonly advised students to highlight traits such as outgoingness, open-mindedness and confidence, while downplaying traits such as obedience and passivity. As one agent put it: “Re-branding ones’ appearances and commitment as transnational cosmopolitan was crucial for successful admission.” Education agents are therefore also brokers of culture and skills, who reconstruct and reconfigure students’ local experience and identities in writing to make students stand out in the admission process.
Employing commercial intermediators to facilitate student mobility is a rapidly growing global phenomenon. Research estimates that over 20,000 “student recruitment agencies” currently operate around the globe. As current scholarship continues to call for the abolition of these paid service providers, particularly in the United States, the need to better understand these commercial actors and their operations in the economic market is crucial. Studying Taiwanese education agents may help us highlight the environmental and moral contexts behind the creation of this market. Future studies taking a comparative lens across multiple, transnational markets of education agents other than Taiwan may inform us about the direction of global education and the potential leading stakeholders when future challenges emerge.
Kenneth H. Chen is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Department of Sociology, University at Albany, SUNY. His dissertational research focuses on how the education agent industry emerged in Taiwan and how it facilitates international student mobility. His broader research interests include international education, economic sociology, class, occupations and professions. This paper is part of the North American Taiwan Studies Association (NATSA) 2019 conference special issue.