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International undergraduate student outreach and engagement 101

interstride logo by Interstride
May 1, 2024

This blog post was co-authored by Alison Herget, a former international admissions leader at Villanova and Brandeis universities, and is based on a presentation delivered at the 2024 Interstride Symposium.

Effective outreach and engagement for international undergraduate students look different than they do for domestic students. Global differentiated strategies are needed to reach international students. This guide is valuable for higher education professionals who are new to international marketing and recruitment or are looking to build on their international student population in new ways.

Important international student enrollment trends to know

New international student enrollment increased by 14% for the 2022-23 school year to a level higher than pre-pandemic numbers. Graduate student enrollment increased the most, by 21%, but undergraduate enrollment also grew for the first time in five years. 53% of international students come from China and India, so keep that in mind when you are doing outreach and engagement. You may want to have information on your admissions web pages that are specifically catered to students and families from these countries.

While international student enrollment in the US is increasing, there is also increasing competition from other countries including the UK, Australia, and Canada. For some potential international students, it has become harder to see the value of a US education due to a variety of factors:

  • Rising cost of attendance in the US
  • Challenges in getting a visa after graduation
  • Political climate
  • Economic downturn

Meeting prospective students where they are

A QS international student survey from 2022 asked international undergraduate students in the US about their experiences with the college admissions process. The following survey questions and results reveal key strategies for international student engagement and outreach:

1. What influences where students decide to apply and attend university? 

  • High-quality teaching (strong academic program)
  • Openness to international students (large international student community and support systems)
  • The culture/lifestyle
  • Good reputation as a place to study
  • Well-ranked universities

Recommendation: To appeal to international students, highlight your institution’s academic programs, culture, and reputation including what sets them apart from other schools. To show that new international students will be welcomed at your institution, showcase current international students, alumni, and professors from other countries.  

2. What resources did you find most helpful during the admissions process?

  • University website – 60%
  • General internet research – 48%
  • Admissions office – 47%
  • Email and other communication from the university – 45%
  • Friends and family – 36%

Recommendation: Most international students will not visit campus before their first semester, so they rely heavily on online information to gain a sense of what the school is really like. Your institution’s web pages should be up-to-date and accessible to students in other countries.

Interstride tip! Prospective international students are online. To reach them, your admissions office will need a strong digital marketing plan to ensure global visibility for your college.

3. Who were the key players in the decision-making process?

  • 63% of prospective international students want to ask current international students questions
  • 67% of international prospects will talk to their parents to help them choose where to study in the US 

Recommendation: Prospective students are going to connect with current students no matter what whether it’s via family, friends, social media, etc. If you want students to get the most accurate info, you can help facilitate these connections through virtual events and student ambassador programs.

Marketing strategy tips

The marketing plan you use for domestic students will not necessarily work for international students. Create a differentiated marketing and recruitment strategy focused on the international prospects that you want to reach. When building your outreach plan, consider the following:

  • Audience – Who are you trying to reach?
  • Platforms – How will you reach them?
  • Messaging – What will you say?

When creating your messaging, look at global and institutional data and play to your strengths. For example, math, computer science, and engineering programs are most popular for international students, so market those programs and highlight how your STEM programs stand out from other institutions. You should also coordinate marketing efforts with other campus offices such as career centers. They have helpful data on students’ career outcomes that could be appealing to prospective students.

Key takeaways

It’s more important than ever to revamp your approach to international student outreach and engagement. There are many steps you can take. The most valuable include understanding the current national and international trends, having a clear plan, and differentiating it as much as possible for international students. Think about what prospective students really need and want, talking to current students for insight. Finally, focus on what makes your school different, and leverage student ambassadors as much as possible to communicate information to prospects.