Higher education recruits the world

With strategic and data-driven efforts in place, institutions are building increasingly successful efforts to bring internationals to campus.
By: | Issue: October, 2014
October 6, 2014

Steven Shaw spends much of his time analyzing spreadsheets and watching for trends. He also flies across the globe on extended trips that can last weeks.

This might sound like a lot of work and resources—but for international student recruitment to be effective, it takes attention, buy-in and leadership at all levels, says Shaw, assistant vice provost and director of international admissions for the University at Buffalo.

Recruiting students from outside the U.S. can have big pay-offs when interest in this group is at an all-time high. According to the most recent “Open Doors” report from the Institute of International Education, enrollment of international students at U.S. colleges and universities increased by seven percent to a record high of 819,644 students in the 2012-13 academic year.

Institutions “see the international market now as part of the whole, rather than a separate area that they may or may not choose to pursue. It’s got to be part of the strategy now,” says Peggy Blumenthal, senior counselor to the president at the IIE.

There are numerous strong reasons for institutions to develop international recruitment strategies, including a desire to globalize the campus experience and to affect tuition.

“As the U.S. population of teenagers is declining, institutions know they need international students to balance their budgets and to give U.S. students more international exposure,” says Blumenthal, adding that diversifying the classroom and getting international perspectives are also big reasons for attracting these students. “Even community colleges—which in the old days were totally a local resource—are starting to bring in international students.”

Although the numbers are still small in comparison to domestic student enrollment, they make a big impact. According to the report, international students’ spending in all 50 states contributed approximately $24 billion to the U.S. economy.

Taking security seriously

Colleges and universities are understandably concerned about fraud in international admissions. Regional and international efforts to accredit businesses and associations help, but college and university officials also need to keep up on security measures used by vendors.

The Educational Testing Service began using biometric identification in February, giving each TOEFL test taker a unique “voice print.” ETS even keeps a watch list of individuals who have tried to take the test in place of students.

Electronic testing devices in testing centers comprise a testing security threat as well, and they have led to counteractive measures to prevent fraud. ETS introduced electronic wanding at all test centers worldwide in January to prevent people from bringing in devices and cheating.

“The methods of fraud are constantly changing, so as a result, we have to constantly be adding new layers of protection,” says Eileen Tyson, executive director of global client relations at ETS.

The top countries contributing to this picture include China, India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Canada—a shift from the years when Japan and Germany were among the top senders. Admissions officials also report trending increases from Brazil, Vietnam and parts of the Middle East, including Iran and Kuwait.

If the international student market represents a decent-sized piece of the enrollment pie for colleges and universities in the U.S., then China is the biggest bite. More than 287,000 Chinese students hold active U.S. student visas, according to April 2014 data from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Student and Exchange Visitor Program. Of the 1 million-plus international students this program estimates are studying in the United States, 29 percent originate from China.

“Opportunities for students in China to study there can be discouraging, and are based on one admissions test. They can get a broad liberal arts education here,” says Blumenthal.

Read on to find out how institutions are strategically and tactically reaching international students these days, using data-driven plans, flexibility and technology-enriched engagement.

Holistic strategies take flight

International student recruitment and enrollment management does require time, intentional efforts and resources—although it isn’t always costly. North Carolina State University has increased its international student enrollment partly through the use of inexpensive strategies.

Among other strategies, NC State makes the SAT and ACT optional, receives English assessment scores (specifically, TOEFL scores) electronically, and has redesigned its website so international students have a section of the site dedicated to them. The university also uses Skype sessions and social media to communicate with students. These are in addition to efforts that are a bit more expensive, such as recruitment tours and working with international admissions counselors in multiple countries.

To increase their chances of recruiting abroad successfully, institutions should analyze the market thoroughly to determine factors like which countries are strong sources of current enrollment, and which are growing. “All too often I don’t see enough data-driven decisions being made. I see more of a follow-the-pack mentality,” says Shaw. “You need to make a decision, commit to it and give it three to five years.”

“We have a publication we make available every year that provides information on mean TOEFL scores by native language and country,” says Eileen Tyson, executive director of global client relations at the Educational Testing Service (ETS). “This can be helpful to institutions when thinking about whether they want to recruit in a country.” Tyson recommends that institutions consider the information in light of other factors showing what is happening in a country, such as a strong scholarship program that will make study abroad more affordable.

At Northern Arizona University, international recruitment work has changed dramatically in recent years; it is more data-driven, and values strong communication. “We’ve developed a very comprehensive plan to communicate with students throughout the admissions funnel,” says Mandy Hansen, director of international admissions and recruitment.

Hansen believes efficiency and communication are essential to engaging prospective international students. “We’ve expedited the review of applications so we get decisions out within 72 business hours, which has a huge impact on students’ interest in attending NAU.”

NAU uses PeopleSoft reports to amp up its communications workflow, an auto-email component from Hobsons, and Synapsis to support initial immigration processing.

Resources abound

Admissions officers and institutional leadership don’t need to recreate wheels when collecting and analyzing research and market data; organizations from IIE to the National Association for College Admissions Counseling to EducationUSA, among others, offer myriad data points and contacts, as well as professional development offerings and conference sessions.

The Department of Homeland Security’s Study in the States website lists tips and resources to help students find institutions independently. Among those is EducationUSA, an increasingly popular service for institutions and students. EducationUSA is a network supported by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) that currently operates more than 400 advising centers in 170 countries, and its advising centers assist students in accessing U.S. higher education opportunities.

“It is totally free,” says Blumenthal of the IIE, “and provides services to universities and students, hoping to help them not rely as much on the paid agents.”

Tyson adds that EducationUSA provides information and partnership, and contacts ETS with information relating to student testing needs. “EducationUSA is great about contacting us, for example, noting that an upcoming scholarship will increase demand and we should increase the number of testing seats.”

NACAC and NAFSA: Association of International Educators also provide numerous resources for students to learn about visas, financial aid, testing and institutions. ETS supports international student knowledge sharing through its TOEFL Go Anywhere website.

ETS also offers the nascent TOEFL Search Service. Institutions pay an annual fee for the service and a charge per name, and can test-run it by identifying certain criteria and seeing how many prospective names the search would yield. The service provides targeted lists of prospective students who have opted in to receive information from institutions. The formats of the service’s data are compatible with most campus management systems.

Approximately 25 percent of institutions use international recruitment agents as part (or all) of their strategy for attracting students. The University at Buffalo does not use agents, partly because it has committed resources to international recruitment for many years.

“We also think that we are the very best people to be out doing our recruitment, because we are the people who can speak directly to the institution, what programs we offer, what student life is like, and with no made up or false stories,” says Shaw. “If you do your own recruitment well and give it time, you will enroll students. I would say all institutions can do this on their own, if that’s what they want to do.”

Narrowing the field

If interest in internationals is on the rise, so are institutions’ options for accessing—and assessing—international students. From social media platforms to Skype and private video companies, technologies help engage and evaluate international students, even in far-reaching and access-challenged parts of a region.

Gary Camp, associate director of admissions and international recruitment at Hope College in Michigan, incorporates online technologies not only to save resources, but also to better discuss the higher education experience with students. While interviews of international students are required, online platforms make those conversations feasible.

“I’ve found these Skype conversations to be a lot of fun and an opportunity to gauge their true English proficiency and the student’s likelihood of becoming engaged in our campus community, as well as a chance for me to explain the nuances of higher education in the U.S. and at Hope,” Camp says.

Camp also has a small group of current students who agree to get on Renren, a Chinese social networking platform, and answer questions from prospects. He is exploring a video service from Video-Recruit.com that allows individuals to record responses to questions on their own time and submit them.

While technology is an essential aspect to a strong recruitment strategy, sometimes face-to-face methods make sense.

“We have a face-to-face speaking test, and many universities and students prefer that. The test can be more affordable, and can be of help in parts of the world where money is difficult to come by,” says Barbara Dobson, director of professional partnerships for Cambridge Michigan Language Assessments (CaMLA), a nonprofit collaboration between the University of Michigan and Cambridge English that delivers English-language assessment tests around the globe.

Old-fashioned word-of-mouth recruitment also represents a core strategy for institutions attracting international students. “A lot of schools have international alumni, and word of mouth is going to be the best recruiting agent they have,” says Blumenthal.

Students and institutions are also increasingly looking to transfer pathways to widen the international student pipeline. Community colleges are working harder to attract international students, often as part of a pathway to a four-year degree.

“You’re seeing community colleges participate in more international college fairs, and go abroad more to recruit,” says Blumenthal of IIE. At Northern Arizona University, more than 50 percent of international students have transferred from an institution either in the U.S. or abroad.

“If anything, we think that is an underutilized approach,” says Eddie West, director of international initiatives at NACAC. “We think more colleges and universities will have a partnership-based approach.”

Caryn Meyers Fliegler is a Chicago-based writer and a former UB editor.