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Addressing the Challenges of Recruiting International Students

By Bradley Beecher July 17, 2018

In the previous blog on recruiting international students, I discussed reasons why it is important for higher education leaders to consider internationalization as a part of their strategic plans and described the various options available for internationalizing. Internationalizing benefits students, faculty, and researchers by providing new perspectives and discourse inside and outside the classroom, and it may influence curriculum by infusing international themes into the readings, videos, or assignments that students complete.

Study abroad and student exchange programs are a well-known example of internationalization.

Addressing the Challenges of Recruiting International Students

As a National Geographic article notes:

    Programs for international students tend to emphasize community service, and many require volunteer hours for participants. Since volunteering isn’t a custom everywhere, many international students tend to do their first service in the U.S., often alongside Americans. They see civic responsibility models in action, which inspires them to do something when they go home.

    As adults later, those same kids who came to the U.S. often start nonprofits or foundations, or become leaders of companies or in government—and remain friendly to America. The peacebuilding work these people learned on exchange programs can make the difference on critical issues that affect their home communities or conflict with other countries.

In addition to study abroad programs, higher education leaders can also expand their reach across the globe through study centers and international branch campuses.

While internationalization has benefits, it is also risky. Internationalization efforts can place a university’s brand, reputation, and resources at risk. Universities and community colleges can find the right mix of internationalization options that align with their institutional mission, culture, and tolerance for risk. What many internationalization options have in common from a risk perspective is being able to fulfill recruiting goals with qualified students. This post will address some thoughts around the current state of international student recruiting. While this post will take more of a US perspective on student recruiting, it will also address common themes that higher education institutions from around the globe are facing. The next blog in this series will address international student recruiting from a European perspective.

Globalization Impacts Recruiting

Globalization Impacts Recruiting

As discussed in the previous post, higher education internationalization is a response to globalization. Competition for recruiting qualified students, faculty, and researchers is a global phenomenon, as this article about recruiting international students with “in-state tuition” notes. It is easier than at any time in history for students to traverse the globe to find a high-quality academic program at a university that aligns their career aspirations. Likewise for faculty and researchers, there is a global competition for their skills to work at a university that aligns with their disciplinary and research goals.

Thinking about recruiting as a competition may not be a mindset that university administrators or recruiters prefer to be in, but attempting to find academically qualified individuals to attend or work at your university is important and increasingly challenging.

Globalization drives the workforce needs for countries and in this 4th Industrial Revolution, universities play an important role in conducting the research and training needed to create the technologies and innovations powering this Revolution. Finding researchers and the next generation of students is a global endeavor that is highly competitive. Government policies become an important aspect in the global search for talented individuals to create these next-generation innovations.

At the end of the last century and the turn of this century, some countries’ political leaders who believed that their country was not ready to compete in the global knowledge economy took deliberate policy action to develop their country’s research capabilities by changing their education and immigration policies to import expertise.

These policy actions equated to making it easier for professors and researchers to immigrate into their country. Some countries developed ambitious plans to import expertise by establishing themselves as education hubs, a destination for education and research. These education hubs hosted international branch campuses, and their purpose was develop the host country’s expertise to compete in the global knowledge economy. Global education hubs exist in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea.

Another policy approach was to sponsor students to study abroad and earn a degree. Governments would help pay for students to study abroad and earn degrees in hopes that they would return home to help build out their country’s higher education sector and work in national companies to compete in the global knowledge economy. The potential downside for the sponsoring government is that the students who earns a degree would not return home to use their newly earned degree and expertise; a phenomenon known as the brain drain effect.

Western universities in the US, United Kingdom, Europe, and Australia welcomed high academic achieving students to their home campuses. Foreign students studying in these Western countries often paid full list price tuition, or two to three times more than their domestic counterparts. For many universities, recruiting international students was lucrative and these students helped offset budget reductions from state or national governments.

The tuition paid by foreign students offset costs for domestic students, helped to fund academic programs at universities, and provided vital funding for facilities maintenance. Overall, international students provide many benefits to universities and colleges, but what emerged with governments providing less public funding for universities was the important financial benefit realized by recruiting more international students.

A university’s brand and its recognition globally is a strategic advantage. If international students know and respect your brand, it can give you an edge in recruiting them. A strong brand and reputation is especially meaningful in certain countries to help students land a job after graduation. But the complexity of international student recruiting goes well beyond an institution’s academic reputation, and is heavily influenced by public policy and opinion.

Recruiting international students is complex for a multitude of reasons. Marguerite J Dennis notes that, “it is no longer possible to create international strategic plans and recruit future international students without taking into consideration the political, economic, technological and societal changes taking place.”

There are currently one million international students in the United States providing revenues of about $39B to universities. Students are having to think harder about making the investment to come to the US, because the message from universities is often counter to what prospective students see in the news. American universities need to make a stronger case for “why study in the US?” rather than stay in one’s home country or choose to study in Canada, Australia, or European countries.

The Institute of International Education is projecting a 7% decline of international student enrollments, and this would be the first decline in about 12 years. Combined with what is happening in the United States, large sending countries such as China, India, Brazil, and Saudi Arabia are providing less financial support through scholarships for their citizens to study abroad or experiencing currency crises, and at the same time are building out their higher education sector so more students can stay at home to study.

What can universities do to recruit international students?

Two trends pertaining to recruiting international students are 1) The changing landscape of policy and competition, and 2) how to market to prospective students with purposeful plans. These plans should include recruiting and marketing strategies that will acclimate, support, and welcome international students to campus.

Universities are recruiting students who are more digitally savvy than any previous cohort of students. Targeted digital marketing to prospective students has become important today because students do not have to rely on a university or program website to provide information about an academic program, these students have other avenues to research a prospective university they are interested in attending. Social media is becoming a powerful tool for student to learn more about a prospective institution, almost as important as a university’s website or print brochures. Recruiters and admissions officers need to become comfortable communicating with prospective and admitted students on these digital channels. For more on this, watch a demo of Education Cloud for higher ed social media management or Marketing Cloud Social Studio for higher ed.

Georgetown McDonough School of Business: A Leader in Higher Ed Recruiting

One example of a university that is leading the way in international recruiting – with great success – is the Georgetown McDonough School of Business. Georgetown McDonough recruits for their full-time and part-time MBA programs in the US and internationally with an omni-channel, community-based approach that leverages technology to achieve scale and a personal touch all over the world.

’Iolani Lightbourne, Acting Director, MBA Admissions, Georgetown McDonough School of Business“With Education Cloud, we are able to target communications throughout the candidate lifecycle. This way, we can make sure we are engaging them in the right way rather than just a blanket communication. We use technology to figure out where someone is in the process and what information they need at that point. The Education Cloud helps us figure out how to allocate our marketing dollars, too.”
– ’Iolani Lightbourne, Acting Director, MBA Admissions, Georgetown McDonough School of Business

Georgetown also collaborates with their international students and alumni for international recruiting: when students go abroad for consulting projects, and when alumni go to conferences, the university empowers them by sharing recruiting materials. “Relationships are very important,” added Lightbourne. “Our biggest success in recruiting lately has been in communicating the value of our collaborative culture and our program in Washington, D.C. by utilizing our networks.”

Keyur Pendal, Director of Applications and Database Development at Georgetown McDonoughKeyur Pendal, Director of Applications and Database Development at Georgetown McDonough, also noted: Education Cloud is helpful for managing the student lifecycle end to end, as well as providing flexibility to integrate different technologies as we need them for specific uses.”

Georgetown has found great results by combining people, processes and the Salesforce platform: “Between events, communications, and technology, the Full-time MBA program has achieved very strong yield,” added Lightbourne.

Likewise, as a student begins their journey with a university, they need support services early on in their lifecycle to support their success. Moving from a recruiting process to admissions and then to matriculation requires seamless handoffs between various departments within a university. Recruiting students, especially international students, is expensive, whether you’re flying international recruiters on staff around the world or paying international recruiting agencies to provide qualified students.

Helping Students Get Acclimated and Accelerate their Careers

Once a university has a student who has accepted their offer of admissions, another best practice is to ensure student success with a dedicated care team. International students require services that some institutions may not be ready to provide such as English labs, housing and dining services during holidays, orientation that helps acculturate students to the United States, the state and/or city they will be living in, and the university.

At Georgetown McDonough, international students get a separate orientation in addition to the regular orientation that all students get, to make sure that international students are aware of specific resources. Additionally, Georgetown MBA students are able to access MBA Career Center resources, including a specific coach for international students, even before they set foot on campus. “This helps put international students at ease, and helps them think ahead about how to position themselves for a career transition,” said Lightbourne.

Challenges and Opportunities

Recruiting is difficult because of global competition and different policies from both sending and receiving countries that universities must address. As economic conditions change or global competition becomes more intense, US universities may have larger or smaller recruiting pools. When large sending countries change policies to keep students at home, it makes recruiting qualified students more challenging.

One example of a recent policy change is Europe’s new General Data Protection Regulation. As US universities continue to recruit students from Europe, it’s important to remember the new policy environment that universities must operate within to ensure compliance with GDPR. GDPR applies to data about people in Europe. provides information for higher ed and nonprofit customers on GDPR here.

“The global graduate management education landscape has become more complex and sophisticated. Thus, traditional ways to recruit students don’t always work. With so many schools and programmes, candidates have more choices than ever” said Sara Strafino, Market Development, Senior Manager, Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC). In the past, attending student recruiting fairs and doing one follow up action was the standard. Now, students expect schools to know who they are and what they want. In response, as noted in a recent webinar with GMAC (the creators of the GMAT) and ESSEC about business school recruiting trends, schools are using data and technology in more sophisticated ways to deliver a more personalized experience.

“We are seeing a more diverse candidate pipeline. Different groups of candidates have different needs and expectations,” added Sara Strafino. “Candidates are very versatile in their use of technology, and schools need to advance as well.”

Higher Ed Trailblazer's Guide: A quick start guide to successLooking past the financial aspects, universities can advance their missions by bringing in more international students. By being on campus, international students help bring new ideas and conversations into the curriculum. As international student acclimate to campus life and make connections and friendships with domestic students, they will help shape campus culture with international perspectives. They will also expose domestic students to new cultures.

For further resources on how leading higher education institutions are using technology in innovative ways, download the e-book on 8 innovators transforming the student journey with the Education Cloud.

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