Recruiting International Students–Insights from Abroad

What’s motivating these students to travel hundreds or even thousands of miles?

It’s been a long wait—and a big strain on institutional revenues—but international student enrollment on U.S. campuses is finally bouncing back. With the world so different, what’s motivating these students to travel hundreds or even thousands of miles? On November 17, Sam Whittaker, consultant at Times Higher Ed (THE) Consultancy and Alexia Koelling, Lipman Hearne’s executive vice president of consulting and account management, discussed the insights gleaned from a collaborative online study of 440 prospective international students from 78 different countries. You can watch a recording of the webinar here. For a recap of this conversation, they sat down—via Zoom—with Libby Morse, LH brand strategist.

There are so many good and intriguing insights from this data. What was the most unexpected finding for you?

SAM: The longstanding conventional wisdom at most institutions has been that these students are eager to pay full freight for the American university experience—that’s why universities seek them out so eagerly. But we found that financial considerations were the No. 1 concern in their decision-making. And they’ll strike off any institution that they perceive as unaffordable.

ALEXIA: Universities need to take notice: If you want to draw international students, these students are like many other students and have financial concerns. So, budgeting for scholarships and communicating about them is essential.

So, if your institution is more expensive, the idea of value becomes even more important, right?

ALEXIA: Right. When we asked students about the factors that influence where they ultimately end up enrolling, their perception of the value of their degree was the third most important factor, after financial considerations and the academic reputation of their program of choice. This points to the need for institutions to focus more of their messaging on the “why”—what students will be a part of.

But reputation—as manifested in rankings, for example—still matters?

SAM: Yes, but it’s one of the factors, not the only factor. Again, this goes against the conventional wisdom that international students are pursuing status in terms of seeking out universities with the best reputation. It’s really an entire package of considerations.

ALEXIA: By the way, we found that terms often used in rankings—“Research University” or “Liberal Arts”—are unclear for these audiences. In that way, they’re not so different from American audiences!

Let’s talk about another factor that emerged as a top consideration: teaching quality.

SAM: Actually, quality of teaching emerged as a top factor for students regardless of whether they’re going to university in the U.S. or not. We asked them to rank seven factors; overall, it comes out the highest. But when it comes to the proportion of students that picked each factor as being the most important: quality of teaching and cost are the top.

ALEXIA: Reputation is important when students are deciding where to enroll. But when it comes to building their consideration set, it falls below quality of teaching. These students aren’t just coming here to get an American stamp on their higher education passport. They want to know what the faculty is like, what the classroom interactions are like. That speaks to a different kind of storytelling than what many universities have been doing for this audience.

The survey also painted a picture of an international audience that feels they have more choices than ever before—and not just in the U.S.

SAM: When we ask if they were they thinking of applying to any other countries, just 26 percent said they were only applying to the U.S. We went into this survey thinking we were hearing only from people who were interested in studying in the U.S. But even among that group, three-quarters are looking to apply to places other than the U.S.

We’ve all been reading a lot about how safety factors into international students’ decision, in recent years. What did the survey find in this regard?

ALEXIA: When we asked what the most influential factors in terms were of where they’re ultimately enrolling, over one in five people chose the issue of “fit.” Now, there are a lot of things that go into fit, and one of them was fear and trepidation about their physical safety in the U.S.

So, the bottom line is these students aren’t just checking boxes about cost, or teaching. They’re looking at larger issues of what a university’s culture is like—they do want a larger sense of an institution’s character.

Any final thoughts?

ALEXIA: Feelings about studying in the United States are complex. On one hand, these students are motivated to experience the culture in America (but not necessarily collegiate culture!), and on the other they are concerned for their personal safety and about the political environment. Communications must reinforce how your institution will give them the positive exposure they seek to American culture—both on campus and ideally in the community surrounding the institution—while at the same time helping to reassure them that they will ultimately be mentally and physically safe.

SAM: Exactly, Alexia. It’s all very complex. My only other final thought is just to say that alongside those considerations, it’s really important to remember that universities can’t take these students for granted: many of them are not only considering multiple institutions, but also multiple possible destination countries. Communicating the right message to students is so important as a result because it’s about winning them round not just from other universities in the U.S., but also from universities around the world. Students are assessing a more diverse set of factors than ever before and also a more diverse set of universities.