This blog post was authored by Alison Herget, a former international admissions leader at Villanova and Brandeis universities.
Perhaps you’ve been given a directive from an enrollment leader that you need to increase international numbers on campus. Or you’re interested in diversifying your incoming class. Meeting these lofty goals requires a differentiated strategy each step of the way. You can’t expect to keep employing the same strategies and expect different results.
As a former international enrollment leader who worked in the field for more than 12 years, I know first-hand the importance of communicating and interacting with international prospects each step of the way. International students studying abroad often have never visited the US and their views of the country are limited to what they see in TV and movies. They gravitate toward brand name institutions in or near big cities because that is what they have heard of, but can miss out on other great-fit schools in other parts of the country.
Connecting with current international students and developing a sense of community at the top of the prospect funnel is crucial in their decision making process. Yet, many institutions wait until students’ senior years to start communicating with them – and even then, they may be sending content of little relevance and the same information they are sending to US citizens and permanent residents.
As demographics change and an increasingly diverse group of international students seek undergraduate degrees in the US, this one-size-fits-all communication strategy is becoming more and more irrelevant.
It’s time to shake up your international prospect strategy. Here are five reasons why:
1. Community is more important now than ever
The Educations.com Trends Survey indicates that 63 percent of prospective international students have questions they want to direct to current students. If you don’t have communications channels set up for them to ask these questions, where do they go? Social media, third-party websites, friends of friends…all of which may not be the most comprehensive, helpful, or accurate sources. Ensuring they can connect with students like themselves at your university ensures they feel welcome and informed before they step foot on campus.
2. Demographics are changing
The number of international students residing outside the US who submitted a Common Application increased at nearly triple the rate of applicants in the US since 2019–20 (55% versus 18%). Overall, the number of international students in the US grew by 12% in the 2022-23 academic year, the largest single-year increase in more than 40 years, according to findings from the federal government and the Institute of International Education.
India saw a 35 percent increase in students studying in the US and now has the largest-ever number of students studying in the country. Meanwhile, many areas in the US will soon see a decline in high school graduates. Coming up with a marketing and recruitment strategy that recognizes these trends is crucial for the long-term health of your institution.
3. A non-differentiated strategy is confusing to students and can be misleading
Non-US citizens don’t need to know when to apply for scholarships that only US citizens are eligible for, or that an on-campus event is happening tomorrow (hard to make it last minute if you’re in a different country!). What they really want to know is: Will there be other students from my background? Will I go through culture shock? Will I experience snow for the first time? A cohesive digital strategy is especially important for communicating with international students, many of whom will never set foot on campus or visit the US before enrolling. Getting in front of prospective students as early in their search process as possible with answers to their questions eliminates confusion and increases the feeling of connectedness with your school community.
4. Increasing competition from domestic and non-US universities
Undergraduate applications to US universities were up substantially overall in 2023. But for some sending countries, like China, the US is falling out of favor as a study abroad destination due to barriers like visa delays and the political climate. Other countries are starting to step in to get a piece of the international enrollment pie. The US remains the top destination country for inbound international students, according to UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics, but the US’s share is falling. US colleges and universities will need to work harder to attract and retain a diverse group of students from throughout the world, and that is a process that starts with an innovative prospect marketing plan.
5. Diversity in all forms is key for a healthy campus climate
One study, conducted by researchers at Duke University, surveyed alumni from several universities. They found that US students who interacted extensively with international students reported higher levels of campus involvement, including coursework outside their major, cultural clubs and organizations, and interaction with faculty outside the classroom. Many colleges are increasingly focusing on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) in their strategic plans with an eye toward racial and ethnic diversity. Not adding international students into this mix is a missed opportunity, due to the value they bring to the campus experience and sustaining future enrollments for years to come.
Alison Herget is a former international admissions leader at Villanova and Brandeis universities. She has led efforts to recruit and enroll diverse undergraduate classes of students from all over the world, managed international communication strategies, and traveled to more than 50 countries