The rise of Digital in international student recruitment
This article first appeared in NAGAP Perspectives, Summer 2018 issue
In “NAGAP Perspectives” 2009, Rahul Choudaha advocated that to maximize the return on investment, graduate schools must embrace online as one of the channels for international student recruitment. The major rationale behind the advice was the observation that students were increasingly becoming more self-directed and independent in their decision-making, adopting a search behavior guided by peer-to-peer online communication and social networks.
A decade later, institutions have attuned to this shift in behavior. Their notion of the fluctuating choice patterns of a new generation of prospective international graduate students towards online, mobile, and social media, reinforced by the maturing of the Internet and communication technologies, has urged higher education marketers to center their recruitment strategies around Digital.
“We are at an inflection point where online recruitment is moving from one of the recruitment channels to the first and most important channel for attracting and enrolling international students.”
So does Rahul Choudaha formulate his working definition of a “digital-first” strategy. In the “NAGAP Perspectives” Summer 2018 issue, he dives deeper into the context of international graduate enrolment, to offer an understanding of how online recruitment rose to champion status in just a decade. Here’s a recount of his research, complemented by the perspectives of institutional leaders who have fully embraced digital-first.
The context of international graduate enrollment
The recent history of international student mobility has been authored by three waves of impactful events: Wave I and Wave II were shaped by the terrorist attacks and global financial recession, respectively. The Third Wave is shaped by new political order – Trump’s presidency in the US, Brexit in Europe, China’s march to power in Asia – which is incrementally intensifying global competition for attracting international students (Choudaha, 2018).
America’s long unchallenged title of preferred study-abroad destination has been claimed by the global ambitions of Asian and European universities. Against the backdrop of sociopolitical, demographic, and technological megatrends, American universities are increasingly finding themselves in the situation where they must “compete” for the attention of prospective students in a politically unsupportive environment (Choudaha, & Van Rest, 2018).
This competitive environment becomes more evident from the recent international graduate enrolment trends and differences by the Carnegie Classification of universities (Table 1).
Table 1. Change in International Graduate Enrollment by Carnegie Classification (2010-2016)
“Doctoral Research Universities with Very High activity enrolled two-thirds of all international graduate students in the U.S.“
According to Choudaha’s reseach, in 2016, 346,745 international graduate students formed 19% of the total graduate enrollment of 1,839,104 students (see Table 1). He observed that there is significant skew by institutional type: Doctoral Research Universities with Very High activity enrolled two-thirds of all international graduate students in the U.S. These universities also cornered much of the enrollment growth—both domestic and international. Between 2010 and 2016, Doctoral Research Universities with Very High activity experienced a growth of 55% in international graduate student enrollment as compared to 10% for Doctoral Research Universities with High activity.
All types of universities except for Doctoral Research Universities with Very High activity experienced a decline in domestic enrollment. Growth in international enrollment provided some support for universities outside Doctoral Research Universities with High activity.
An analysis of the data suggests that U.S. institutions enrolled 21,390 fewer international students in Fall 2017 as compared to Fall 2016 (see Table 2). With average tuition and fees of $25,000, higher education institutions are likely to lose potential revenue of $535 million for the first year of studies alone (without factoring any tuition discounts or waivers).
Table 2. Change in International Graduate Enrollment by Level of Education and Field of Study
“Graduate students in Science and Engineering fields contributed to more than two-thirds of the decline (69%) in international enrollment.”
Choudaha comments that graduate students who come to the U.S. hold higher expectations of career outcomes and hence are more sensitive to the changes in the employability and immigration policies. Recent policy directions and discussions related to curtailing of H1-B work visa and increasing scrutiny of Optional Practical Training (OPT) are largely responsible for this decline. Graduate students in Science and Engineering fields contributed to more than two-thirds of the decline (69%) in international enrollment.
In sum, American graduate schools are increasingly reliant on international students for sustaining enrollment goals. However, not all schools have the budgets and brands to compete in the new environment. This makes it very important for graduate schools to innovate and adopt recruitment strategies that are not only cost-effective but allow for targeted outreach in line with student behavior. This is where digital-first marketing strategy plays a critical role.
How US colleges leverage Digital
Digital marketing for international student recruitment allows schools to experiment with and scale their efforts in different markets. Marci Fradkin, Director of International Outreach at Valparaiso University, notes that “we can’t be everywhere with limited budgets. Digital marketing opens up new markets in a cost-effective manner and helps us tell Valparaiso’s story.”
Ali Yares, Assistant Director and Campaign Manager at Kogod School of Business, American University, concurs. “As a business school, we are looking to recruit people all over the world and digital marketing fits to broaden our reach. Many international students come to us because of our digital marketing partnerships.”
Next to the ease of reaching a global audience, digital marketing is highly valued for its precise targeting capabilities. Laura Montgomery, Director of Academic Program Marketing at The New School, highlights that while the New York City location and institution’s specialty brand makes it less challenging to get the numbers, it is not always easy to attract the right-fit international student who can bring diversity and is able to thrive on an urban campus.
“This is where the digital channel provides tailored content opportunities, which helps in connecting with students and enabling their choice by providing the right content at various stages of the process,” Montgomery adds. “Specifically, digital marketing allows us to target our campaigns by country to improve international diversity and provide contextual information.”
“Students are more independent in their decision-making, and digital channels provide the resources over a longer term through deeper content and richer stories that allow for exploration to make the choice. It allows us to pull the student toward our institution instead of pushing our message.”
Diversity has grown of paramount importance to American institutions, bearing a relationship to both a university’s values as well as economic stability. Many university professionals emphasize targeting has become their primary recruitment instrument to achieve a diverse, high-quality student body.
Michael Terrazas, Director of Communications at Georgia Tech College of Computing, says that their overarching goal for the online MS in Computer Science is to recruit a diverse group of students in terms of gender, race and ethnicity, and countries of origin. “Digital marketing is one of the more targeted approaches we have for reaching one or more of those specific groups of students,” says Terrazas.
The digital channel also adapts to the student decision-making processes. Terrazas notes that given that the MS program is online, “students in this program must be comfortable with online communication and information sources, so in that sense, digital marketing aligns quite well, though this is true for both domestic and international students.”
Montgomery notes that “students are more independent in their decision-making, and digital channels provide the resources over a longer term through deeper content and richer stories that allow for exploration to make the choice. It allows us to pull the student toward our institution instead of pushing our message.”
Digital tools also embed the building of a community in the recruitment process with their high personalization and tracking capabilities. Building new markets takes time and consistent presence, and digital marketing provides that critical continuity in communication and engagement. Fradkin notes, “It is important for us to have an integrated marketing and communication strategy as it can easily take up to three years for students from a new market to show-up on our campus. Digital marketing allows us to continuously communicate with prospective students and improve our approaches.”
A decade of opportunities online
The Third Wave of international student mobility is characterized by a higher reliance on international students to sustain graduate enrollment goals in times when it is increasingly challenging to recruit them due to competition and political climate. It’s high time that graduate schools start aligning their resources and priorities with student decision-making processes and market characteristics through digital-first strategies. The success of many institutions will depend on how quickly and effectively they innovate and adopt digital-first strategies to the new environment of the Third Wave.
The recent across-the-board decline in international graduate students in the U.S is undeniable, but it is expected to slow and stabilize.
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