Navigating the way to studying abroad

Ding Yi
Thousands of smaller agencies dedicated to helping students to study abroad are scattered across China, competing with industry giants in what is a fast-growing, lucrative market.
Ding Yi

After giving a talk on studying abroad, You Wenbin found himself besieged with phone calls from college students seeking his help in jumping through all the hoops in the process of pursuing an overseas education.

For eight years, he has been a “matchmaker” of sorts, trying to link the traits and academic credentials of students with complementary programs abroad. Once a destination is chosen, he helps them with everything from application forms to visas and accommodation.

In 2016, You quit his job as a senior adviser with the Tiandao Education Group, a big overseas-study agency, and opened a small studio he called GuideIn with four partners.

“I was told by people in the industry that I had two choices,” You says, “either climb to the ladder in a big agency to senior positions not involved with actual clients or start my own business and continue to work hands-on with students. I chose the latter because I prefer people to paperwork.”

Thousands of smaller agencies dedicated to helping students to study abroad are scattered across China, competing with industry giants in what is a fast-growing, lucrative market.

The 21st century ushered in a dramatic jump in numbers of Chinese students who want to study overseas. That suits ambitious parents who believe education abroad is the key to a better career.

Nearly 610,000 Chinese students attended schools and colleges overseas in 2017, an increase of 11.7 percent from a year earlier. China is the world’s largest source of international students, according to the Ministry of Education.

It’s not only a big business for middlemen but also for overseas institutions of education who pull out all the stops to attract foreign students and the higher tuition they pay. In some reported instances, universities abroad have taken unfair advantage of foreign students with false advertising claims. It pays to be careful.

You says most of his clients are undergraduates, and their favored destinations are the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, in that order. Hong Kong special administrative region is also a popular option for Chinese mainland students.

Ti Gong

You Wenbin (standing) explains program options and costs to clients.

Savvy businessmen first spotted the trend back in the 1990s, and agencies that help students with their applications began to spring up. The market was monopolized by big agencies such as New Oriental Vision Overseas, Education International Cooperation Group and Beijing JJL Overseas Education Co.

When the State Council, China’s cabinet, announced in early 2017 that such agencies no longer required licensing, the floodgates opened to a rapid expansion in agencies.

The State Council said it took the action to create an open and fair market, where the strong would survive and the weak be forced out of business.

Still, prospective international students and their parents often find themselves in a quandary about which agencies are the most trustworthy and professional.

“We have more choices, but my daughter and I got lost in the sea of overwhelming counseling service providers,” says parent Zhou Lifang. “Judging agencies from the surface, it’s hard to tell about their true capabilities.”

In fact, the basic services are all pretty similar. Most agencies offer an entire package of advice and assistance — helping clients select schools, make study plans, complete application forms, write personal statements and essays, obtain visas and organize accommodation.

You says the main difference between big companies and small agencies like his is the level of personalized service.

“I involved myself deeply in the application process of every student, from beginning to the end, by limiting the number of cases in hand,” he says. “Big companies operate like an assembly line, with clients passed to different staff at each juncture of the process.”

Zhang Liwen, who used to work for Beijing JJL Overseas Education Co, feels the same. She started her own agency, Yvonne Study Abroad Workshop, and limits her current caseload to 10 to 20 students. That’s less than half of her former workload at the bigger company.

Ti Gong

A wall at You's company displays offers his clients have received from top overseas universities.

Some of the more comprehensive education groups also provide additional services that may improve a student’s chances of being accepted at a top overseas university.

New Oriental Vision Overseas, for example, offers training courses for language tests and internship opportunities at high-profile companies, according to manager Lin Yueyun, “but we charge extra fees.”

Costs across the industry vary according to target destinations. Pursuing a college education in the US ranks at the top of the price list.

The average cost of services for postgraduate programs in the US is from 40,000 yuan (US$6,049) to 60,000 yuan. For undergraduate study abroad, the costs range from 80,000 yuan to 100,000 yuan. By contrast, charges for help to study in the UK and Australia are about 20,000 yuan because of simpler procedures.

You says his business relies heavily on word-of-mouth.

Lu Xiaodi, a junior at Shanghai International Studies University, is a client of You’s. She says she looked at more than five agencies before choosing his.

“A senior schoolmate recommended You to me,” she says. “After vetting various agencies, I was convinced that it’s best to look at the qualifications of a person, not at an agency as a whole.”

Lu adds, “The specifics of the college application and selection processes can be daunting and time-consuming. I would rather concentrate my time on language tests and internship, so I made up my mind to sign up for some outside help.”

Special Reports