Investing in international student enrollment strategies

US higher education system enrolled nearly 975,000 international students in 2014-2015. This is an increase of 52% since 2007/08 or 350,000 students more students in seven years. What are the underlying growth patterns and implications for institutional strategies?

With nearly 975,000 international students enrolled in higher education institutions in 2014-2015, the United States remains the leading destination. However, by looking deeper into the numbers, it becomes apparent that not all institutions have been successful in attracting international students. For example, 1 out of 5 international students is enrolled in just 25 institutions.

Beyond these few institutions, majority face challenges in attracting international students. On the one hand, there are challenges of limited resources and expertise and on the one hand, there are constraints of location and rankings. This is where higher education institutions must invest in deeper understanding of international student mobility trends with a focus on shifting needs, expectations and decision-making processes to build informed and sustainable enrollment strategies.

Here are three charts from IIE Open Doors’ data that indicate growth based on the year-to-year changes in international student enrollment by academic level, source country and type of institution.

Enrollment in master’s degrees drives growth

In this post-recession environment, bachelor’s level enrollment increased not only because of interest from higher education institutions to recruit more full-fee paying students, but also due to expanding demand from Chinese students, who were less price-conscious.

In the last three years, master’s-level programs experienced a growth in international student enrollment. In 2011/12, the enrollment at master’s-level decreased by 1,100 students as compared to 2010/11. However, in 2014/15, enrollments in master’s degrees increased by nearly 30,000 students as compared to previous year. Indian students, who were less price-conscious and aimed for shorter duration programs, supported the shift in demand for master’s level programs.

India catches up with China

In 2006/07, China added only 4,400 students more as compared to previous years. For next six years, China witnessed a rapid growth momentum. At its peak in 2012/13, China added 41,500 more students as compared to 2012/13. For next two years, China grew at a slower pace adding 38,800 and 29,600 students than previous year.

In contrast, India witnessed three continuous years of contraction in enrollment between 2010/11 and 2012/13. This is when the Indian currency was devaluing and US employment market was unstable. With Indian students getting used to the new normal of cost of studying abroad and employment prospects in the US improving, India added 30,200 students in 2014/15 as compared to previous year.

Master’s level institutions become attractive

While there are 300 doctorate-granting institutions and over 700 masters-focused institutions, according to the Carnegie Foundation, the number of international students enrolled in doctorate-granting institutions is nearly four-times than those at masters-focused institutions.

The brand pull of leading doctorate-granting institutions have been strong enough to make them less sensitive to recession. They continued to drive most of the enrollment growth. However, for last two years, master’s level institutions are picking up the pace. In 2014/15, master’s level institutions added 21,200 more students as compared to previous year. This growth correlates with growth in Indian students who are concentrated in master’s programs at an affordable price.


Although record high numbers of international students indicates the sustained attractiveness of the US as a top destination, the sifting trends and complex relationship with the macroeconomic environment highlights the importance of informed strategies to recruit international students.

At the same time, higher education institutions must balance their efforts in international student recruitment with investments in support services to deliver positive experiences and meet the diverse needs of international students. Sustainable enrollment strategies require engagement of successful international student ambassadors.

Rahul Choudaha is a global higher education strategist at He researches, speaks and consults on international enrollment and institutional partnerships with a focus on growth and innovation strategies. Choudaha holds a doctorate in higher education from the University of Denver. He can be reached at


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