March 2013  Volume 26, Issue 2
International Education Intelligence   
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International Student Mobility Trends 2013: Towards Responsive Recruitment Strategies

Rahul Choudaha, PhD, Director of Research & Advisory Services, WES
Li Chang, Research Associate
Yoko Kono, Research Associate

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The global student mobility landscape is in constant flux, and is often influenced by external factors beyond the control of higher education institutions (HEIs). These include, but are not limited to: demographics; economic growth and decline; the expansion of local higher education systems; immigration policies and regulatory environments of competing host countries; government-initiated scholarship programs; and the emergence of technology-enabled alternatives like MOOCs.

Consider how patterns of the top senders of international students to the U.S. have changed over the past decade. China took over from Japan as the leading source of international students in 1999/00, before being overtaken by India in 2001/02, and then regaining the reigns in 2009/10. Japanese enrollments have plunged from a peak of just over 47,100 in 1997/98 to less than 20,000 in 2011/12; while student enrollments from select emerging markets have grown rapidly. Enrollments from Saudi Arabia, for example, have increased by 700 percent since 2002/03, from 4,200 to 34,100 in 2011/12.

In addition to the external factors mentioned above that are influencing student mobility, post-recession budget cuts, primarily in U.S. public higher education, have prompted many institutions to actively recruit international students. And while the catalysts to recruit international students are often external, institutions have frequently found themselves internally under-prepared for this sudden shift towards more proactive recruitment. Moreover, insufficient understanding of near-term student mobility trends and recruitment practices can be detrimental to their future strategic internationalization efforts.

With these considerations in mind, the latest research report from the Research & Advisory Services arm of World Education Services, “International Student Mobility Trends 2013: Towards Responsive Recruitment Strategies,” has been drafted with a goal of assisting institutions in prioritizing resources and building capacity for proactive international student recruitment [Download the full report]. The report focuses on recognizing current and future mobility trends, with practical recruitment recommendations for the 2013/14 cycle.

In particular, we discuss three topics: 1) a comparative perspective of international student mobility patterns (both globally and U.S.-focused) based on an analysis of data from multiple sources; 2) trends in recruitment practices from a survey of international enrollment management professionals; and 3) a framework for responsive recruitment strategies for HEIs.

Below are snapshots of the key findings from the research study.

Growth in International Undergraduate Students

In 2010, the international student population reached nearly 3.6 million worldwide, according to UNESCO data released in 2012, soaring by almost 50 percent over the past six years (2.5 million in 2004). Competition for international students is becoming more intense and complex, as reflected by the diminishing global market share of the four key players—the U.S., the United Kingdom (UK), Australia, and Canada1. Although overall growth of globally mobile students is expected to continue, its composition in terms of where they come from, where they are going, and their level of study is rapidly changing.

One overarching mobility trend of the new millennium has been the rise of international students at the undergraduate level. Driven by increasing affluence in source countries like China and Vietnam, and by government-initiated scholarship programs as in Saudi Arabia and Brazil, more fully funded students are heading abroad. It is reported that in 2012, over 95 percent of Chinese students studying overseas were self-funded. Similarly, as of January 2012, two-thirds of all Saudi students pursuing higher education abroad were funded by their government.

This trend in undergraduate mobility couldn’t be any timelier for public institutions seeking alternative revenue streams to compensate for state budget cuts. In fact, for the first time in U.S. history, the number of international students at the four-year bachelor’s level reached a quarter of a million, and together with enrollments at the associate two-year level they surpassed the total number of international graduate students.

And not only are more undergraduate students arriving in the U.S. from overseas, but we have also observed a growing trend among HEIs to specifically recruit these better-funded international students to their undergraduate programs. As noted above, this phenomenon is being fueled by the growth of the middle class in a number of emerging nations, the new financial needs of public universities and colleges, in addition to the broader internationalization goals of institutions that want to be relevant in this new era of globalization. For the sake of simplicity, we use the terms “undergraduate” and “bachelor’s” students interchangeably in the report, excluding those enrolled in two-year programs.

Comparative trends in undergraduate enrollment

International student enrollment growth is driven by students at the undergraduate level; put another way, students are increasingly studying abroad at a younger age. As Figure 1 shows, all four of the host countries that we look at have significantly increased their intake of international undergraduate students between 2004 and 2012. Not surprisingly because of their aggressive recruitment practices, the UK and Australia have seen the strongest growth, with increases of international undergraduate students in excess of 60 percent during this period. The U.S. and Canada by comparison have seen international undergraduate growth between 40 and 50 percent over the same timeframe. Australia has the largest concentration of international undergraduates with three out of five international students enrolled at the undergraduate level in 2012.

When compared to graduate enrollments, undergraduate enrollments in the U.S. have clearly been the engine of growth, with enrollments jumping 37 percent between 2004 and 2012 as compared to 10 percent at the graduate level during the same period. In 2012, nearly a quarter million international students studied in undergraduate programs at U.S. HEIs. The most recent data from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency suggests a continuation of this growth story, with Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) numbers showing a 12 percent jump in registered international students in undergraduate programs from September 2011 to September 2012, again outpacing growth at other education levels.

Although the U.S. falls behind the three other big English-language destinations in percentage growth, it has the greatest potential to attract more international students at the undergraduate level. Whereas 13 percent and 24 percent of the total undergraduate population was international in the UK and Australia respectively in 2012, in the U.S. the proportion of international students was just two percent of the overall student body in 2012 (Figure 1).  

Figure 1: Comparative Trends in International Undergraduate Enrollment,
                 2004 vs. 2012

Reading instructions: In 2012, 244,800 international students studied in undergraduate programs in the U.S., which accounted for 40 percent of all international students and two percent of total national (domestic and international) enrollment in undergraduate programs. Sheer numbers are rounded off to the nearest hundred. *Canada figures of 2012 refer to the 2010-11 academic year. Source: Institute of International Education (IIE); Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA); Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR); Statistics Canada (SC).

We summarize this trend in the U.S. context from the following perspectives: source country, field of study, and Intensive English Program (IEP). For a more detailed account of these trends, please refer to the full research report.

Source countries vary in potential for undergraduate recruitment

A look into the levels of study reveals that students from some countries have a higher propensity than others to study at the undergraduate level versus the graduate level. For example, more than 70 percent of students from Malaysia, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia are enrolled in associate’s and bachelor’s programs. By contrast, Iran and Taiwan are primarily graduate-student-focused markets.

Business fields draw more attention

Business-related programs are the most popular single field of study among international students. With no signs of slowing down, the proportion of students in business fields has grown significantly in recent years, and each of the top four source countries—China, India, Korea, and Saudi Arabia—send significant numbers of business students to the U.S. Among Chinese and Korean students, business is the single-most popular field, while among Indian and Saudi students it ranks third behind engineering and math, and engineering and English respectively.

This growth in the popularity of business programs has paralleled, to a degree, the overall demand for undergraduate programs at U.S. institutions. As a result, international undergraduate students in business studies grew by approximately 60 percent in the U.S. between 2003 and 2011, with nearly three out of ten international undergraduates enrolled in business fields—a proportion that is now comparable to the UK and Canada.

Intensive English Programs become a recruitment pathway

Although many of today’s younger international students have strong academic qualifications, many are also insufficiently prepared to enroll directly in an English-taught degree program. As a result, the Intensive English Program (IEP) sector has been growing at the fastest rate among all other fields of study in recent years. A total of 38,900 international students in the U.S. were enrolled in this type of program in 2011/12, which is more than 2.5 times as many as in 2003/04 (15,000). The top four senders of IEP students in 2011/12 were Saudi Arabia (12,300), China (5,400), South Korea (3,100), and Japan (2,400).

Institutional Priorities: Aggressive, Diverse, and Efficient Growth

As demonstrated in the previous section, the environment surrounding international student mobility has become increasingly complex and unpredictable. Admissions professionals should be well-informed about broad mobility patterns and adapt their recruitment strategies accordingly.

To better understand how U.S. HEIs are redefining their strategic plans, we surveyed 35 international enrollment managers in Fall 2012 and gathered in-depth qualitative responses about prevailing recruitment practices in the field. While recognizing that our sample of 35 HEIs is not fully representative, the research attempts to encapsulate the rich and multifaceted developments occurring at U.S. universities and colleges.

Our analysis of survey responses suggests that current U.S. institutional priorities are focused on achieving aggressive, diverse, and efficient international enrollment growth. To accomplish these goals, international enrollment managers reported a wide array of emerging recruitment practices that fall into one of three dominant themes: 1) technology for expanding reach in a cost-effective manner; 2) partnerships for creating pathways and visibility; and 3) research to prioritize efforts and measure return on investment.


Based on a synthesis of the experiences and recruitment practices shared by our experts, we recommend a framework for responsive strategies that emphasizes the interplay of technology, partnership, and research (Figure 2). For optimal recruitment outcomes, U.S. HEIs should employ these three key practices in tandem to produce aggressive and efficient international enrollment growth.

Figure 2: The Interplay of Responsive Strategies

Within this framework, and by measuring and adjusting their recruitment efforts throughout the admissions funnel, institutions should achieve higher enrollment yields. This will not only help institutions prioritize their efforts by knowing what works and what doesn’t, but it will also allow them to use the segment-based outreach strategies that are more cost-effective. Likewise, partnership models can expand access to prospective students with positive word-of-mouth amplified through social media and face-to-face communication.

Today’s growth in international enrollment in the U.S. is driven by younger,  financially and technologically empowered students at the undergraduate level; whereas, the traditional segment of self-directed graduate students who attend funded research programs is stagnating at most U.S. institutions. This means that the opportunities for HEIs to internationalize and expand their student bodies lie mainly at the undergraduate level.

The emerging segment of well-funded international undergraduate students presents HEIs with an opportunity to help bridge budgetary shortfalls, while also posing recruitment challenges; however, it is also imperative that HEIs not lose sight of the broader goals of internationalization which includes embracing diversity to enhance academic and cultural experiences.

To achieve international enrollment goals in a cost-effective manner without compromising the ideals of internationalization, HEIs would need to:

  1. Understand the decision-making processes, needs, and preferences of the new segment of international undergraduate students: Unlike the graduate segment, the decision-making process of undergraduate students is more susceptible to external factors, such as location, parents, support services, and word‐of‐mouth via social media. Their mobility patterns and preferences are also distinct from international graduate students. Higher education institutions cannot simply extend the practices designed for recruiting and admitting graduate students to this unique and emerging segment of undergraduate students.
  2. Adopt responsive institutional strategies and practices that are mapped to student needs: International enrollment strategies are effective and sustainable only when they are aligned with the specific needs and preferences of the targeted student segment. Proactive U.S. universities and colleges can respond effectively to the rise of well-funded international undergraduate students by developing their internal capacities and implementing a strategy based on the iterative interplay among technology, partnerships, and research.

There is no magic formula for achieving sustainable international student enrollment growth, especially in the unpredictable environment of globalization. Each recruitment strategy has its own promises and challenges, and yields varying measures of success. But by implementing a holistic strategy based on technology, partnerships, and research, institutions can make their international student recruitment responsive and productive.


The U.S., UK, Australia, and Canada, accounted for more than two-fifths (40.3%) of all international students (UNESCO 2012). By contrast, almost one-half of international students (47.8%) chose to study in one of these four destinations in 2004 (UNESCO 2006, 2007). The joint market share diminished in part because other destinations, such as Germany, are also becoming serious competitors to the big four above.

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