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Community colleges extend international invitations

5 ways community colleges are attracting students from across the globe
University Business, August 2018
  • A GLOBAL COMMUNITY—With a 680-acre campus in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Kirkwood Community College has attracted students from 100 countries. Its most active recruitment efforts over the past decade have been in Vietnam. Messaging includes small class sizes, affordable tuition and transfer opportunities.
  • 2+2—Green River College in Washington has conditional guaranteed articulation agreements with 40 universities for its 2+2 program.  Academic advisors counsel students on which classes to take and what GPA is generally required to get into specific schools such as Berkeley, Michigan or Indiana.
  • Sources: National Center for Education Statistics; International Institute of Education’s “2017 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange.” (gettyimages.com: creepycube).

International students coming to the United States can mean a financial boon for community colleges as well as the towns and cities where they reside.

Nearly 100,000 international students attending U.S. community colleges contributed $2.4 billion to the U.S. economy and supported more than 14,000 jobs during the 2016-17 academic year, according to data released by NAFSA: Association of International Educators in May 2018.


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“They shop in the local community, they do things in the local community, and that’s good for the local community,” says Rosalind Raby, director of California Colleges for International Education, a consortium of 84 community colleges.

Of the 1,103 community colleges in the United States, more than 700 are federally approved to enroll international students, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.


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Most international students at these schools eventually transfer to four-year institutions and receive bachelor’s degrees. Increased tuition revenue and greater campus diversity motivate two-year colleges to recruit international students.

“Typically, international students pay a lot more than local students, which works to provide more resources for classes and other services to be offered to local students,” says Martha Parham, a spokesperson for the American Association of Community Colleges.


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Here are five actions two-year institutions can take to recruit international students.

1. Hone the marketing message.

Relaying the benefits of community college is a must for international recruitment.  That begins with defining “community college.”

“When universities recruit around the world, the term ‘university’ has a direct translation, but when community colleges recruit, there is not a direct translation anywhere,” says Dawn Wood, dean of international education at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The recruiting message at her institution is “Start Here, Go Anywhere.”

Kirkwood’s messaging touts benefits such as small class size, individualized attention in the classroom and affordable tuition, as well as specific support services and transfer assistance, Wood says.

Santa Monica College in California, which has approximately 3,500 international students (the second largest population of these students at a community college in the U.S.), uses a similar approach.

People overseas don’t always understand that community colleges can serve as the first two years of university study, says Denise Kinsella, interim dean of Santa Monica’s International Education Center.

“They think that we’re like a high school or a technical school that is not a pathway to university. Yes, we do have articulation agreements. Yes, it is easier to transfer, sometimes, than to actually get in as a freshman.”

Santa Monica emphasizes particular programs of study that are popular in various regions overseas.

“In other regions, families are very concerned about safety, so we underscore the safety of our location,” Kinsella says. “Learning which individualized message is appropriate for which region is part of the process of building business relationships in the different markets.”

2. Focus on recruiting in specific regions.

Kirkwood has been recruiting international students since the 1970s, and has done more active recruiting, such as traveling and advertising, in the last decade, with a focus on Vietnam.

Unlike many countries around the world, Vietnamese families generally understand that beginning at community college for two years and then transferring is more affordable than attending a four-year university, says Wood.

Partnering with four-year universities to present 2+2 transfer agreement messaging has worked well. An organization in Vietnam also helped promote the easy transfer concept.

“It doesn’t make sense for me to go to one of these huge EducationUSA fairs that’s just wide open because I’m going to get a lot of leads but not a lot that are looking for a community college in Iowa,” Wood says, adding that sometimes they will attend community college-specific fairs.

Kinsella recommends that colleges focus recruiting efforts in countries from which they have already enrolled students—building where there is existing appeal.

3. Differentiate your campus.

Is the main appeal location? Access to a specific profession due to a nearby corporate headquarters? An English as a second language program that does not require TOEFL proficiency? Or perhaps a history of students attending that community college from a specific region or country?

Ross Jennings, senior director of international education at Green River College in Auburn, Washington, advises doing market research to determine which programs and services to include in marketing efforts.

Attending a large education fair overseas will also help in getting to know different countries and different agencies from different countries. That can make it easier to determine what to highlight.

Twenty-five years ago, in 1993, Green River had 250 international students, which was a considerable international student population. With increased international recruiting efforts over the years, in fall 2017 Green River had 620 international students from more than 60 different countries.

“The question you would have to ask would be, ‘What do we truly have that other schools don’t?’ If you don’t have anything special, it’ll be much more difficult to recruit.”

Intensive English language programs can be a huge draw, says Kinsella.. “Students don’t have to have a particular English proficiency level to start at Santa Monica College. They can come with low English and they’re able to stay here,” says Kinsella.

The college offers for-credit ESL courses consisting of sequential levels in reading, writing and communication.

Another option is the noncredit Intensive English Program, for F-1 international students who don’t meet the minimum TOEFL or alternative proof of English proficiency to be admitted as an academic program F-1 international.

That multiskills course meets 20 hours each week and has two levels. Housing can be another big attraction—and the lack of it a major deterrent.

At Green River—which built a 340-bed apartment-style residence hall in 2004 and has about 400 host families who accept students—every new international student has housing guaranteed through one of those options, says Jennings.

4. Establish relationships with agents and organizations overseas.

Community colleges, like four-year institutions, sometimes use education agents overseas to help recruit. Due to ethical concerns, many institutions only use agents accredited by The American International Recruitment Council, a nonprofit that promotes standards-based recruitment strategies.

In addition, there are education organizations in each country, plus individual high schools that may allow participation in high school visits and college fairs. Such events are about relationship building over time and can create visibility for a community college and attract international students from that country.

Standard agent agreements generally compensate the recruiter based on a percentage of the international tuition and fees for a determined number of quarters of enrollment.

Green River, which has worked with third-party recruiters for more than 20 years, thoroughly vets the partners to ensure they follow the best practices and practical recommendations outlined in the “International Student Recruitment Agencies: A Guide for Schools, Colleges and Universities,” a publication commissioned and produced by the National Association for College and Admission Counseling.

The college has also established long-term relationships with overseas high schools and universities. An educational agency works with the high school and Green River to develop and market pathways to the community college and beyond, says Wendy Lee Stewart, vice president of international programs and extended learning.

5. Hire staff who can expand recruitment efforts naturally.

Some community colleges have full-time international recruiters, while others parcel out recruitment duties among several different staff members as part of their positions.

Language skills are crucial.

Green River has three full-time recruiters and two part-timers, one of whom is Ukrainian and speaks Russian. Because of that staffer’s background and native language, Green River has been able to increase recruiting efforts in countries with native Russian speakers—which it did not focus on before.

Regardless of which strategies a community college uses to start or increase international student recruitment, Jennings advises creating a five-year financial and work plan.

“You have to plan it out and be ready to commit to that five-year period to make that work,” he says. “If that five-year window is agreed upon and planned for to start with, colleges can be successful.”


Elaina Loveland is a Washington, D.C.-area freelance writer.