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Developing an International Enrollment Strategy

Understanding the needs and interests of international students can drive recruitment
University Business, January 2016

A small proportion of higher education institutions in the U.S. command a majority of international student enrollment. While 108 doctorate-granting universities enroll just 11 percent of all students in the country, they enroll some 44 percent of all international students. What explains this trajectory of so many international students toward a small number of institutions? And how can other institutions deepen their understanding of the needs and desires of international students, and build informed enrollment strategies to become more competitive in recruiting, enrolling and retaining these students? In this web seminar originally broadcast on November 12, 2015, a global higher education strategist discussed some of the latest research about international student mobility as well as the decision-making processes of different segments of the international student population, and how to use these insights to develop sustainable and competitive international enrollment strategies. 

Global Higher Education Strategist

In these challenging economic times, how can enrollment officers adapt and develop their enrollment strategies for international markets?

One of the biggest challenges institutions report, irrespective of the type of institution, is allocating scarce resources efficiently. On one side, there is the concern of how to meet enrollment goals; but on the other side, there are resource constraints. Institution leaders are concerned not only with the availability of resources, but how to make sure that the resources are most efficiently used. That’s the word to keep in mind as we move forward in terms of the research and strategy. How can we make it more efficient, especially in developing an international enrollment strategy, where costs can run very high, very fast? In this scenario of enrollment challenges and limited resources, many institutions have started focusing on international student enrollment as part of the solution. International enrollment can also mitigate some of the demographic challenges institutions face. The same 108 institutions enroll about 11 percent of all U.S. students, but they enroll 44 percent of all international students. These are the institutions which provide a much larger portfolio of offerings for international students to choose from.

Given the combination of these factors, there is a trajectory toward a particular type of institution for many international students. One factor in their decision is simply geography, as students naturally gravitate toward key metropolitan cities and the availability of higher ranking institutions in those areas. The landscape of international student enrollment is complex, competitive and has nuances which can make it difficult to navigate. And a lot of these dynamics have changed post-recession. Prior to that, the pressure to develop proactive international enrollment was not as high. To conceptualize your strategies, one has to move from quick-fix solutions to more sustainable solutions. For example, a sole focus only on increasing the number of international students and not focusing as much on quality, diversity and fit of students is unsustainable. Given the pressure to increase enrollment numbers, strategies are often reactive.

For example, if there is demand coming from China, then China becomes the target market for many institutions. A quick-fix approach would also maintain the decentralized framework of many campuses. There is a need for a more coherent and integrated approach to international student enrollment. From the perspective of international students, the geography, language and cost can pose more barriers for not only gathering information about institutions, but identifying what is credible information and what is marketing. International students often focus on college rankings. What are the opportunities for universities to go beyond the constraints of rankings? You cannot control or change ranking, so what are the alternatives for the university to make sure that your value proposition is reaching the right audience? What are the right communication channels which can enhance the impact of your message?

Research shows that the lower the income of the country is, the higher propensity to study abroad. Lower-middle income, lower income and upper-middle income countries have been driving a more robust growth in students travelling abroad when compared to more developed economies like South Korea or Japan. Identifying the countries with a similar pattern of economic development is the best strategy for developing student recruitment in emerging markets. Research has identified four markets—Brazil, Vietnam, Indonesia and Nigeria—where growth is expected, not only because of the aspirations and the quality of life pushing people to go abroad, but because as the economy develops, their ability to purchase high-cost education increases. We try to get inside the mind of an applicant. The enrollment management field in the domestic market has been more technology-savvy, but not as much has been done in terms of understanding the international student market and how these segments differ.

We have developed a rubric to help understand the different segments of international students. On one side of the equation is academic preparedness, low or high. On the other side is financial resources, again, low or high. “Strivers” are a segment of students who have high academic preparedness and low financial resources. They are commonly driven by their career advancement goals. They focus on opportunities such as scholarships, assistantships, internships and jobs immediately after the college program. For them, it is important to minimize the cost and maximize the value of their education. These students will be more open to compromising the location if cost is low and the probability of finding a job is high.

Opposite to the Strivers are “Explorers.” This is a group which has low academic preparedness and high financial resources. To this segment of students, experience is important in their educational decision-making. Because they are willing to pay, they expect more; they’re also more specific and less compromising in terms of location. In contrast to Strivers and Explorers, the “Strugglers” segment is the one which is less likely to have financial resources and academic preparedness. For them, sometimes the motivations and intentions to study in the U.S. go beyond education. They may be driven by the prospects of immigration, rather than education alone. Unfortunately, some for-profit institutions have used immigration and visa pathways to attract this segment of students, some of whom have used forged documents to get into the U.S.

Opposite to the Strugglers are “High Fliers.” This is a group of students who have both money and mind. They have all the necessary resources in terms of finances and academic preparedness to be a very attractive candidate for any institution. However, for this group of students, rankings, prestige, location, and social and cultural capital become much more important. They are not as much driven by career advancement opportunities. Since everybody wants them, these students have more bargaining power. They also come predominantly from international high schools, and are more likely to visit campus in person. An effective strategy should focus not just on who you want, but also about who you are most likely to get. This knowledge requires a deeper assessment of institutional strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and challenges. Another important component is looking at how to leverage your own university network with controlled and credible communications.

Often we talk about the channels of communications that are less credible and less controllable by the university. For example, the influence of family and friends are hard to control. Instead, imagine a strategy of engaging with prospective international students through a virtual panel, which could include a faculty member, a current student, an alum and an admissions officer in a Q&A session. That can be a great recruitment opportunity while also providing credible communication.

Here are three important sets of questions to consider for any institution in the process of developing an international enrollment strategy:

  1. What is my target student segment out of those four segments? Which is the most feasible for us to recruit, and who is our aspirational group of students?
  2. Which source countries should we focus on? Which mature, developed countries, and which emerging countries? Which should we prepare for in the next three years?
  3. Which communication channels should we use, both in terms of online methods and in-person engagement? Another crucial consideration is to ensure that you engage with authenticity. It’s vitally important to provide authentic engagement with both prospective students and your alumni when reaching out.

To watch this web seminar in its entirety, please go to

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