In search of future-proof solutions for international student recruitment in US higher education


2018 might be the year that got hit the hardest in terms of international student mobility. American colleges are losing out to foreign universities in the race to enrol international students due to a suite of contributing factors, among which a politically-charged unwelcoming climate and visa policies are at the top of the list.

The influence of the current political climate on the American international mobility strategies cannot be understated. Although many institutions are committed to further enhance global engagement and grow international student enrolment numbers, the decrease in student interest in US higher education degrees has been sharply felt since 2016. The declining trend became even clearer as we approached 2018. For example, as Quartz reported, the US issued visas to less than 400,000 international students in the fiscal year of 2017. That represents a 17% drop from 2016 and a 40% one from 2015. The declining numbers don’t stop just with issued visas.

Figure credit: Youyou for Quartz. Visa numbers counted by fiscal year from October 1 to September 30.

Significant world events are known to cause considerable shifts. In the case of US higher education, there is a strong correlation between societally impactful events, such as the September 11 Attacks or the economic fall-out of 2008, and fluctuations happening in the growth of international student mobility and interest in the country. For example, out of a Studyportals survey from 2016 that was carried out just after the presidential elections, we concluded that 46% of interviewed students noted that they have become less interested in studying in the US. From a policy perspective, 28% of interviewed students noted that the Travel Ban made them unsure of studying in the US, citing among the factors feeling that the US has become less welcoming to international students (48%).

Setting the scene

In order to understand the scope and impact of this trend, together with its implications for American universities, we here at Studyportals have hosted the Turning the tide: Future-proof international student recruitment for US Higher Education webinar on the 16th of May 2018. More than 530 professionals registered for the webinar which comes as a follow-up of a recent study published by the Center for Studies in Higher Education, UC Berkeley. In this report, Dr Rahul Choudaha, Executive Vice President of Global Engagement, Research & Intelligence at Studyportals applies the framework of Three Waves of international student mobility and analyses enrolment differences in the US by institutional types.

The main purpose of the webinar and the research report was to open up the discussion and collectively bring viable solutions to the table, that would enable a more suitable growth of international student numbers regarding US higher education institutions. As mentioned in the UC Berkeley report, “Universities must get proactive and strategic in their outreach to maintain or avoid an unwanted decline in international enrollment. Many institutions will need to adopt purposeful and sustainable strategies for recruiting and supporting international students.”

The webinar included an interactive panel discussion, hosted by Rahul Choudaha with following experienced panellists from diverse institutional settings:

  • Daniel Palm, Associate Vice President for Global Initiatives at Northern Arizona University;
  • David Di Maria, Associate Vice Provost for International Programs at University of Maryland, Baltimore County;
  • Karen Vahey, Dean, Enrolment Management, New York Institute of Technology;
  • Paul Hoffmann, Associate Vice President for International Programs, California State University, Sacramento.

The discussion was a catalyst for interesting and diverse opinions sharing, both from the panellists and from the participants.

The three Waves of international student mobility

The framework of three Waves of international student mobility provides a bigger picture of how mobility has changed over time from the perspective of competing destinations. In this framework, Rahul Choudaha defines a Wave by key events and trends impacting mobility directions and patterns in the recent time-frame from 1999-2020. While many variables influence mobility, this conceptual framework is meant as a guiding map to understand the key influences of international student mobility and help higher education institutions design informed strategies.

The three waves of international student mobility

The three Waves can be defined by the following characteristics and international student enrolment growth in the US:

Wave I (1999-2006)

  • This wave was caused by the increasing demand for highly skilled talent for economic and technological development;
  • There has been a substantial growth in enrolment numbers of international students at a master’s and doctoral level, especially in fields such as science, technology, and engineering;
  • The main events that slowed down enrolment growth were the September 11 Attacks and tougher visa requirements and restrictions for internationals;
  • The result was a slower overall growth in international student enrolment of 11% between 1999 and 2006 in the US.

Wave II (2006-2013)

  • American higher education institutions experienced a robust growth of 44% in international student enrollment between 2006 and 2013 during Wave II;
  • Much of the international student numbers increase in Wave II was driven at an undergraduate level, in opposition to what has happened in Wave I;
  • The main events that slowed down enrolment growth were the global financial crisis and the severe budget cuts happening in the higher education sector;
  • During this growth period, many universities discovered that they were unprepared to support the diverse needs and expectations of international undergraduate students.

Wave III (2013-2020)

  • Wave III is dominated by the uncertainties triggered by the new political climate, overshadowed with nationalistic viewpoints;
  • The current academic environment is heavily affected by the anti-immigrant and nationalistic rhetoric spread out in the US;
  • Competition from new destinations is becoming stronger, especially due to the megatrend regarding the rise in popularity of English-taught programmes in Europe and Asia;
  • The trend for Wave III results in a slower pace of projected growth of 18% in international enrollment in the US during this period as compared to Wave II.

These different Waves indicate that changes in the external environment have an outsized effect on the enrolment priorities and directions. “While many institutions in Wave III are facing challenges, enrolment success of Wave II following drastic challenges of Wave I shows that American higher education institutions are resilient and can restore attractiveness to international students. However, overcoming these challenges would require strategic and innovative solutions,” said Choudaha during the webinar introduction.

What solutions can American higher education institutions invest in

When thinking about Wave III and its impact on international student mobility, the following four strategic approaches were discussed during the webinar:

  • Brand awareness, messaging and digital outreach
  • Strategic partnerships
  • New markets
  • Financial models

Brand awareness, messaging and digital outreach

For universities such as Northern Arizona University, brand awareness represents one of the main areas of focus. By improving the visibility of institutional brand and pairing it up with the right communication channels, an institution can capitalise on creating a more targeted awareness. That approach will raise the quality of the university’s application and enrolment pool. As Daniel Palm mentioned during the webinar, “investing in online branding and awareness is a priority to ensure that the university is showing prominently in regional searches.”

At the same time, use the available digital channels to get the right type of content to your future students. One important information category that the New York Institute of Technology has been using to support their targeted student groups is visa arrangements. They are using Facebook live to engage with admitted students to improve the yield on a range of topics related to visa preparation. In the end, as Karen Vahey put it, “It is critical to track the ROI of your efforts by the source of activities and then identify what is working and what is not.” Especially in our digital environment, the opportunity to test, track, analyse and optimise should not be missed.

Strategic partnerships

In order to prevent a drop in international students numbers, establishing strategic regional and institutional partnerships can prove to be an effective solution for many American universities. This is especially critical in times of increasing volatility in the external environment and decreasing budgets. For example, the location of Northern Arizona University makes Latin America as an important relationship to maintain and grow on a longer-term basis. Palm adds that Local expertise through in-country staffing is another strategy to build a strong local presence through a nimble model that adapts to changes in the external conditions (political, financial, student perceptions, etc.).

Paul Hoffmann from the California State University, Sacramento highlighted that he is engaging with local governments and businesses to increase overseas opportunities and developing institutional partnerships to ensure a more steady enrolment pipeline.

New markets

Diversification of the student funnel is a priority for many for American higher education institutions preparing for success in Wave III.

David Di Maria from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, noted that investing in new markets is also a function of time-frame to show enrolment results. Currently, half of all international student enrolments come from just two countries–India and China. But given the current uncertainties, especially regarding the political scene, one need not bet all their chips on few countries. As David mentioned, “Investing in new markets is also a way to see the wanted enrolment results. For the short-term, targeting countries like India and China still pays off, but it is critical to start investing in new markets for the long-run.”

Paul Hoffmann from the California State University, Sacramento, shares the same opinion regarding country targeting strategies. He discussed the importance of paying attention to different markets, aside from the traditional ones, stating that: “Given the dependence on China and India for graduate enrolment, it is important to maintain enrolment by investing in emerging markets for the future.”

Karen Vahey concurred and noted that despite the withdrawal of government scholarships, Saudi Arabia remains an important source country. At the same time, her team is working on developing new markets, including Vietnam. In a live audience poll during the webinar, nearly 20% of respondents identified Vietnam as one of the key markets.

Financial models

One of the key challenges for many American universities is financial sustainability. A declining number of students on one hand, and budget cuts on the other put considerable pressure on American universities. Choudaha estimates that with an average tuition fee of US$ 25,000, higher education institutions are projected to lose potential revenue of US$ 788 million for the first year of studies alone (excluding the effect of tuition-waivers/discounts).

Investing in scholarships/tuition-waivers for international students may sound counter-intuitive in times of financial challenges. However, it can stimulate demand and competitiveness. David Di Maria from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, believes that investing in tuition discounting can be a fruitful approach to growing and diversifying the international applicants’ pool.

Di Maria also suggests that through strategic reinvestment models, universities can ensure both recruitment and retention success. Another, often neglected, area of investment is staff retention and training. Admissions and marketing officers are the main points of contact for international applicants. As students’ demand for responsiveness is increasingly becoming a factor in their decision-making, experienced and knowledgeable staff can improve your yield, adds Di Maria.

International enrolment success in Wave III

International students represent a critical asset to the competitiveness of American higher education in terms of financial, intercultural, and educational contributions. This is why finding solutions for the reversing the trend of decline of international student enrolment in the context of Wave III is paramount. Choudaha noted in the UC Berkeley report:

“While the reputation and quality of American higher education is admired and emulated around the world, resting on its past laurels will not be sufficient for attracting international students in the Third Wave. This competitive threat may even affect some of the leading research universities which until recently have been highly successful in attracting international students. Higher education institutions must become more proactive in reaching, engaging and supporting international students throughout their educational lifecycle.”

In the end, future-proofing international enrolment will be about identifying strategies and tactics that are controllable, rather than agonizing about what’s out of our control.

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