When the German parents of Alexandros Gehrckens explored his options for a high-school year abroad, they turned to a Stuttgart-based education agency specializing in Canada as a destination.
Through Breidenbach Education, Alexandros’s mother, Eleni Kapogianni, and her partner, Hinnerk Gehrckens, selected Sacred Heart School of Halifax for its small-school philosophy, low teacher-pupil ratio and diverse extracurricular activities.
While at Sacred Heart in 2017-18, their son flourished academically, including in math after he had struggled with it at his German public school. His parents say Alexandros, now 16, gained self-confidence during his year away and returned home to complete his studies at a bilingual (German-English) North American-style high school.
Using an education agent is a common strategy for parents who seek an overseas study experience for their children, but lack the detailed knowledge to compare individual schools in a destination country. For these parents, but also for schools eager to recruit a diverse range of qualified international students, agents serve as important intermediaries between students and schools.
“They know the quality of students we are looking for,” says Sacred Heart admissions director Marie Reyes, of the agents that work with her 500-pupil school that includes 30 international students. (Sacred Heart is registered with Canadian Accredited Schools and is a member of the Network of Sacred Heart Schools U.S./Canada.) “They [agents] have invested time at their end to identify a student as a good match … on our side, it eliminates some of the variables and time is not wasted.”
Mike Henniger, vice-president of sales and marketing for ICEF (International Conferences and Education Fairs), says “the growing trend is for increased use of agents because of the good return on investment.” The for-profit company holds an annual event in Canada (and others elsewhere) for school admission officials from kindergarten to university to meet reputable agents, prescreened before they join the ICEF event, from around the world.
Parents pay fees to agents (some call themselves consultants) who may offer assistance from the initial school selection to the end of a student’s overseas stay. Fees typically range between $1,500 and $4,000 a student, depending on the level of service.
Some schools choose to pay commissions (or other fees) to overseas agents who recruit and screen local students in preparation for a visit from a Canadian school’s admissions officer. “Agents are a cost-effective way [for schools] to increase their branding and make themselves known in more countries, not just the main markets,” says Mr. Henniger, noting intense global competition for study-abroad students.
Meanwhile, Canada’s growing popularity as a destination adds to the demand for knowledgeable agents. In 2017, Canada shot to top spot as a preferred destination given global political turmoil in 2016-17, according to an ICEF survey of 1,500 agents worldwide. Along with a weak Canadian dollar, the “Trump effect” of nationalist rhetoric by U.S. President Donald Trump has raised Canada’s profile internationally. The country’s relatively open immigration policies, living costs and quality of education help, too.
For Ms. Kapogianni, an oral surgeon, the United States was not an option given her low regard of that country’s high schools. With a Google search, she found Breidenbach Education, a German agency that works only with Canadian schools.
“It was worth every cent,” she says of her relationship with the agency and its managing director, Jacob Woehrle. “He was my contact person.” When her son was unhappy with his initial home-stay family, she says Mr. Woehrle swiftly arranged a satisfactory alternative thanks to his close relationship with the school.
“We can act as an intermediary and mediator,” says Mr. Woehrle, who makes regular campus visits to Canadian schools where his firm places students aged 13 through 18. “Our schools trust us and the parents trust us.”
In preparation for a school application, Breidenbach Education conducts a three-hour interview with a prospective candidate and family members to develop a profile and from there identifies potential schools as a suitable fit.
Academic ability is only one factor, he says. “It doesn’t mean they have to be straight A students; they have to be good in [their] motivation.” Mr. Woehrle’s firm also arranges flights and visas and holds predeparture seminars for students to adjust to Canada.
In-person campus visits are an essential part of the agent’s role, says Amanda Roberts, owner of Dorm and Day, a Cayman Island-based firm that places students in top schools in Ontario and Quebec as well as the United States and Britain. “I go to see the school so I can provide first-hand knowledge to help parents find that right fit,” she says.
Like others, she cites a “Trump factor” and the U.S. “gun issue” as contributors to Canada’s rising international profile among overseas parents. “I don’t see the market waning in terms of using agents,” she says. Among schools, she adds, “they are all looking for international diversity.”
To that end, school admissions officers frequently travel abroad to meet prospective candidates recommended by education agencies in the home country.
“If they are the right agency, they are part of the arm of the school,” says Chad Holtum, deputy head of school at Glenlyon Norfolk School, a CAIS-accredited co-ed, university prep day school in Victoria.
Of agents, he says, “we both need each other. They need us and we need them. We want to come to a place where we can work together and word of mouth is king.” To that end, he notes, “if the school provides the kind of education we say we are providing, it makes the agents look great because they represent a quality school.”
For quality control, Glenlyon Norfolk negotiates formal agreements with agents and requires letters of reference. The 710-student school has capped international enrolment at 80 students, with an emphasis on diversity.
Some China-based agencies have established satellite offices across Canada.
With offices in Vancouver and Toronto, Beijing-based Can-Achieve Education works with more than 50 private and independent schools across Canada.
Marketing director Echo Tan says her company trains more than 2,000 subagents in China to screen appropriate candidates and explain the differences between schools in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec. As well, her firm works with Canadian schools to connect them with affluent and middle-class Chinese families. “They want to know which schools offer International Baccalaureate programs and which ones are good at ice hockey,” she says. “I think more and more the media notice that Canada’s K-12 market is attracting more Chinese and Asian students. It is a good thing.”
Shanghai-based WISE House International Education publishes an annual directory of Canadian schools, says managing director John Chan, originally from New Brunswick. As intermediaries, Mr. Chan says the agency has an on-the-ground presence in Canada and focuses on prospective candidates’ needs for a successful experience.
“We got into the industry by accident when we realized there was a lot of misunderstanding [by parents],” he says. “Parents want to send their child to Upper Canada College because it is famous,” he says, preferring they determine if there is a good match. Some Chinese agents, he contends, are “form fillers” who have never visited Canada.
With Alexandros Gehrckens now home, his parents say they are amazed by his transformation. “Everything we hoped the year would do for him came to reality,” says Mr. Gehrckens. “We had a lot of fears, but it turned out very well.”
Ms. Kapogianni says their son became “Canadian” in his year abroad. “He loved it so much and it was a really good experience for him,” she says. “It was the best gift we could give him.”