March 2011  Volume 24, Issue 2
  International Education Intelligence   
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International Student Recruitment

By WES Staff

In times of budgetary constraints at universities around the world, the topic of international student recruitment and how institutions and nations might capitalize on this important source of intellectual and financial capital has become increasingly pertinent in recent years.

In this article, we offer some thoughts on the current international recruiting climate for U.S. universities, in addition to a comprehensive set of recruiting-related links from the WENR Archives.


With international students typically paying a higher tuition premium comparative to their state-subsidized domestic peers at public institutions of higher education in most foreign study destinations, universities are increasingly looking to supplement reduced state funding with out-of-state tuition fees, especially from undergraduate students who are mainly self-funded. However, institutions in the United States have historically done little to promote themselves abroad, relying instead on their own brand recognition or that of US higher education in general.

While there are hundreds of thousands more internationally mobile students today than there were a decade ago, or even five years ago, the competition among institutions and nations for the talent and tuition fees of those students has ratcheted up considerably. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics’ final figures for 2009 – which will officially be released in May – the number of internationally mobile students rose to 3.43 million from 2.96 million in 2008. These latest figures from the Global Education Digest report are in line with broader decade-long growth trends that have seen international-enrollment numbers spike by more than 75 percent since 2000.

Of those 3.43 million students, some 691,000 were attending institutions of higher education in the United States in 2009/10 according to figures from the Institute of International Education. Clearly, the United States with its over 20 percent share of the global market for international students is a dominant player; however, it should be noted that the proportion of international students attending U.S. institutions of higher education versus the rest of the world is significantly lower today than it has previously been. According to 2009 data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the percentage of internationally mobile students at tertiary institutions in the United States versus the rest of the world dropped from over 25 percent in 1999 to 21.4 percent in 2007.

At some universities, international students make up more than 20 percent of the total student body – Columbia University (28.2 percent), the University of Southern California (22.9 percent), Stanford University (22 percent), and Cornell university (20 percent) – however, the overall proportion of international students as a percentage of the total student body at all U.S. institutions of higher education was a comparatively low 3.6 percent in 2009/10 (a figure that hasn’t varied a great deal over the last decade).

As a point of comparison, in competing education-exporting countries with smaller higher education systems, such as Australia and the United Kingdom, the proportion of international students to the total student body in higher education is 23 and 17 percent respectively. One would assume therefore that there remains room for international enrollment growth at many institutions in the United States, particularly at smaller, less well-known institutions that may be yet to fully engage the education-export agenda.

From the WENR Archives: International Mobility Data and Issues

It seems highly unlikely that the U.S. higher education system – as large, varied and comparatively well endowed as it is – will ever enroll as high a percentage of international students as Australia and the United Kingdom, but certainly there is growing interest at an increasing number of institutions about being more proactive in the recruitment process.

The question for many institutions trying to take part in this new era of internationalization, especially those new to the arena or with limited resources, is how to construct an effective international recruitment strategy? The broadest of all possible answers to that question is probably threefold: entirely from within, through the use of third-party services, or a combination of the two.

Institutional Initiatives

Although it is unclear as to the proportion of colleges and universities employing the services of third-party recruiters or agencies, it appears that a growing number are doing so, even as the debate on the ethics of their use heats up. However, it is safe to assume that a majority of institutions either continue to conduct all recruitment efforts in-house or rely mainly on the commision-free services of EducationUSA.

Long established, free of charge, but perhaps underutilized, EducationUSA’s global network of more than 400 advising centers is supported by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. It is charged with promoting mutual understanding between the United States and other countries through personal, professional, cultural and educational cooperation. For U.S. institutions of higher education interested in promoting themselves abroad, these offices provide impartial advice to prospective students on the U.S. education system and the range of institutions available to them.

From the WENR Archives: EducationUSA professionals :

Despite the good work of the EducationUSA offices, institutions seeking to significantly increase international enrollments and separate themselves from the crowd need to take a more proactive approach to recruiting, especially if they are looking to avoid outsourcing their efforts.

One example of a big land grant university that has taken this on in recent years is the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities (UMTC), which, with a student body of more than 51,000 students, is one of the biggest campuses in the United States.

Facing a drop in new international undergraduate enrollments of almost 50 percent between the fall of 2001 and 2004, UMTC officials in 2005 made a recurring budget commitment of $100,000 for an undergraduate recruiting program (where none previously existed) and set a goal that international students would make up 5 percent (compared to 1.7 percent) of its undergraduate student body within a decade. According to a 2007 IIENetwork article by C. Eugene Allen, Former Associate Vice President for International Programs at the University of Minnesota, after three years of actively recruiting, the university began seeing results that included wider name recognition abroad to more students on campus.

The strategies undertaken by the university began with a large delegation recruitment trip to Beijing to attend the Beijing International Education Expo, which was used as a learning experience for future recruitment initiatives. From this trip a UMTC Recruitment Committee was formed to plan activities, identify needs and solutions, hear and respond to reports and feedback on recruitment trips, and share relevant news and developments. Members of this committee met and consulted with people from other institutions that had experience in recruiting international students, while international student feedback was also solicited and used to understand the appeal and drawbacks of the campus as an international study destination. Examples of useful feedback at UMTC cited by Allen included:

  • The critical importance of websites,
  • The need for basic brochures translated into native languages for targeted areas
  • The important role of international student communication networks, parents, and agents in student decision-making.

The committee then went on to develop a comprehensive plan outlining the major issues, targeted recruitment areas, budget, and staffing. The plan included a goal for the proportion of international undergraduates in the student body as a means of not only implementing initiatives but also in justifying future budget requests. Allen also suggests that involving senior leadership in recruitment trips and long-term planning is an important part of getting budgetary and decision-making buy in. Finally, a review of the campus services that are, or should be, available to international student – such as orientation, health care and insurance, housing and food, ESL, visa services, and counseling – are also cited as being crucial.

Allen notes that it is important to realize that it “typically takes two to three years before there are any noticeable enrollment increases—therefore, it is necessary to make repeated visits to the same place and not give up too soon.”

In three years, the UMTC campus saw a 19 percent increase in the number of international undergraduates on campus (515), and a 105 percent increase in new undergraduate enrollments. Overall international enrollment at all levels in 2009/10, according to the most-recent IIE data, was 4,665 or 9 percent of the total student body. Allen points to the following factors behind the increase:

  • Collaborative efforts of Admissions, International Student & Scholar Services, International Programs, Graduate School, and ESL.
  • Repeated recruitment visits to embassies and targeted sites abroad.
  • Updated websites to make them more informative and user-friendly.
  • Development of recruiting brochures and targeted translation.
  • Improved processes and response times for inquiries and applications.
  • Re-establishment of an ESL program.
  • Work with selected Education USA advisers.
  • Improved welcoming and orientation for new students.
  • Scholarships for international undergraduates.

Of course, not all universities and colleges have the necessary resources to devote the kind of funding that a big land grant university can to international student recruitment, however, a budget has to exist if any recruiting is to occur. As noted above, a website tailored toward international students is a critical and relatively cost-effective start (see related piece in current issue). In addition, application and admissions materials and procedures need to be created, as well as hard copy promotional materials for use at fairs, or to be sent to EducationUSA advising centers and other outlets promoting the institution.

Building a network of colleagues, partners and advisers is also essential in developing an idea of best practices in the field. To that end, membership of professional associations such as NAFSA, AIEA and other internationally focused networking organizations, in addition to attendance at conferences, needs to be budgeted. And if overseas recruiting trips are part of the plan, then international travel costs will also have to be accounted for.

But before elaborate and expensive recruiting trips are planned and undertaken, less costly and perhaps more effective strategies should first be in place. Possibly the most cost-effective strategy for institutions beginning the process of building international enrollments is to leverage alumni and current students by helping them relay their positive experience to friends, families and networks. Word of mouth is consistently cited by admission professionals (and sales professionals in almost any industry) as the most important promotional tool they have.

First and foremost, this requires that every effort is made to ensure that international students are having a positive experience, which means that adequate services and facilities exist to cater to their particular needs and then that communication channels remain open during their period of study and after graduation through the creation of alumni networks and other student-to-student outlets and networks.

From the WENR Archives: Recruiting Strategies

Third-Party Recruiters

The use of international recruiting agents among U.S. institutions of higher education is a practice that remains somewhat controversial – with questions of ethics, applicant quality and institutional reputation being among the areas of concern – however, an increasing number of institutions are outsourcing some or all of their recruiting efforts to third parties as they seek to bring diversity and tuition revenue to campus without significantly bloating the recruiting line of already tight budgets.

A number of different agency models have emerged in recent years, from simple commission- or fee-based recruiting to more ‘full-service’ or ‘pathway’ models that can include the outsourcing of applicant screening, cultural preparation, classroom instruction and residential services.

Pathway Model

Australia-based Navitas, which recruits for colleges across the world – including three University of Massachusetts campuses, Western Kentucky University (WKU) and the University of New Hampshire in the United States – offers a hybrid ‘pathway model.’ This includes the recruiting of students and the offer of additional academic services designed to prepare students that might not otherwise be eligible for university studies in the United States. These additional academic services include English-language instruction and also foundation and degree-transfer programs, oftentimes at the campus for which Navitas recruits. In the case of UMass Lowell, students pay Navitas the full, out-of-state tuition for classes offered by Navitas on the Lowell campus. UMass collects approximately 30 percent of the fees under the University Pathway Program or Pre-Masters Program until the student is ready to matriculate into the degree program, after which UMass collects the full tuition.

At WKU, students recruited into the Undergraduate Pathway Program must satisfy entrance requirements set by WKU and are granted conditional admission to the university. Students coming to the United States in this manner usually do not have the English-language skills to qualify directly. Instead, they will take a mix of English courses alongside their academic coursework. To be admitted to this ‘mixed pathway’ at WKU, students need Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) scores of 173,500 or 61 (on the computer-, paper- and internet-based versions of the test, respectively), or an International English Language Testing System (IELTSS) score of 5.0. By way of comparison, to be admitted directly into undergraduate programs at WKU, students need scores of 197,525 or 71 on the TOEFL tests, or 6.0 on the IELTS.

Similar hybrid models are offered by UK-based INTO University Partnerships, which currently works with Oregon State University and the University of South Florida in the United States. At the two U.S. campuses, as with its UK partners, INTO occupies buildings within the broader campus branded with the INTO name and offering classrooms, study and social areas, in addition to residential halls. Like Navitas, INTO handles the recruitment of international students and offers a range of programs designed to prepare the student for transfer into an undergraduate or graduate degree program, collecting the lion’s share of fees while the student is preparing for full university studies.

Similar models are offered by Study Group, which is currently partnered with Long Island University, James Madison University and Royal Roads University (British Columbia, Canada) in addition to a larger number of proprietary institutions. Test-preparation company Kaplan, Inc. operates two ‘Global Pathway Programs’ at Northwestern University and, more recently, the University of Utah under its newly announced Global Solutions Program, which looks to build a full range of international-recruitment related services.

Recruitment Model

While ceding control of the recruitment process is controversial and problematic enough for many within U.S. higher education, giving up control over credit-bearing, academic coursework, as it might be argued is the case with the examples cited above, is even more contentious. As such, most institutions in the United States that are engaging the services of third-party recruiters are doing so strictly on a recruitment basis, while maintaining control over admissions and curricular content.

As with the pathway programs, a number of bigger recruitment agency players are looking to establish themselves in the U.S. market. Perhaps the largest in terms of institutions currently represented is IDP Education, which has a long and successful track record of recruiting for Australian institutions. In the last couple of years, the company, which is owned jointly by a consortium of 38 Australian universities and a private partner, has begun recruiting for its more than 80 U.S. institutional partners, which range from big land grant universities to small liberal arts colleges. The IDP business model is based largely on placing students, for a flat fee, and helping them through the admissions and visa processes.

Hobsons, a British company, is another recognizable name looking to build its market share in the United States after it entered and began building a portfolio of institutional clients for whom it recruits in 2010. Perhaps the biggest U.S.-based agency is World Education Group, which has an institutional client base of approximately 25 universities and colleges.

Both World Education Group and IDP have been certified by the American International Recruitment Council (AIRC), a recently formed (2008) nonprofit association, which seeks to offer quality assurance mechanisms to the recruitment marketplace through its certification process. At present, there are 24 agencies certified by the AIRC with another round of candidate agencies, including Hobsons, currently undergoing the quality assurance process.

Beyond the big agency model, institutions work individually with their own networks of trusted agents, either from regional offices in big markets such as India, China and Japan or as part of a network of independent contractors. For those institutions that cannot afford to maintain offices abroad, there are alternative cost-sharing avenues that are starting to emerge as entrepreneurs in target markets look for innovative solutions to institutional needs.

One such example, highlighted in January by InsideHigherEd, is that of the Minnesota-based for-profit company Gen Next Education, which is developing a plan to offer office-sharing options mixed with outsourcing opportunities. The in-country International Knowledge Centers, as the shared facilities are known, would serve as a base from which many institutions can develop their recruitment strategies (among other internationalization efforts) in a specific region. While representatives from member colleges could use the Knowledge Center as a base on recruiting trips it would be staffed on a day-to-day basis by Gen Next employees. They would provide a host of services – including marketing at regional high schools – to help coordinate the colleges’ international activities on the ground and in building local brand recognition, which is especially important for smaller, lesser known institutions.

The company is currently in the process of opening its first International Knowledge Center, in Bangalore India, which it hopes will be the first of many such centers, representing no more than 25 institutions each. Reportedly, the cost of becoming a "strategic partner" of a center is a not insubstantial $20,000 to $30,000 a year, depending on the level of service.

From the WENR Archive: Agents

Other Strategies

In addition to the recruiting strategies discussed above, institutions in the United States have been exploring a range of other avenues to bring international students to their campuses.

One such popular option is the creation of joint and dual degree programs with foreign campuses whereby students spend a period of time at each campus and often graduate with degrees from both. These kinds of agreements have been especially popular with Chinese campuses under ‘1+2+1’ agreements facilitated by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) in conjunction with the Chinese government’s China Center for International Educational Exchange . Now in its 11 th year, the 1+2+1 program involves 20 AASCU member campuses and 70 Chinese campuses, with more than 1,000 Chinese students having spent their sophomore and junior years at AACSU institutions during that period.

There are hundreds of examples of similar types of agreements between U.S. institutions and colleges around the world that have been forged on the basis of institution-to-institution agreements. These agreements are especially popular in the fields of management, law, information technology and engineering where cross-border case studies are particularly relevant in the current era of globalization.

Other universities and colleges have taken the training of overseas students a step further by establishing programs and branch campuses abroad. Franchised programs are typically undertaken with a partner institution (frequently a private college or university), which provides the physical infrastructure and oftentimes the teaching staff with the U.S. partner providing the curricular content, some teaching staff and where necessary the training of domestic instructors. Revenue from these types of programs is typically shared and students might have the option to study at the U.S. campus for a period, or even transfer credits to complete their degree in the United States.

Fully fledged international branch campuses are a more recent, yet growing trend. However, the international branch campus remains far less common than franchised degree programs or joint degree agreements, given the financial and reputational risks involved. Nonetheless, an increasing number of U.S. universities have or are in the process of building campuses overseas. The Gulf countries of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have been especially popular destinations in recent years, as have a number of Southeast Asian countries, with Europe-based branch campuses tending to be a little more seasoned.

Overseas campuses and programs can help American universities raise their profile, build international relationships, attract top research talent who, in turn, may attract grants and produce patents, and gain access to a new pool of tuition-paying students. However, failures such as the recent examples of Michigan State and George Mason in the United Arab Emirates can be costly.

Other, more traditional routes to internationalization by top universities include research partnerships and faculty exchanges. This has especially been the case in countries such as China and India, which have great appeal as rapidly growing markets yet rigid regulations in place that limit the presence and activities of overseas campuses. Yale, as one example, has dozens of collaborative research agreements with Chinese and Indian universities, which bring a steady stream of scholars from those countries to the university’s New Haven campus.

Technology is also adding to the list of internationalization and recruitment options. While still struggling for respect in a number of countries, online degree programs are increasingly becoming more mainstream, with US companies such as Laureate collaborating with respected universities (the UK’s Liverpool University in this case) to offer internet-based programs. Laureate currently has a network of university links in 24 countries.

From the WENR Archives: Cross-Border Campus and Program Initiatives

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