Is the International Enrollment Boom a Rising Tide that Lifts All Ships?

Series: Changing How We Understand the Market

In this new series by Jon Boeckenstedt, we analyze current enrollment and demographics data, uncovering stories that challenge how institutions often understand their marketplace—or that shed new light on emerging trends. We want to encourage a deeper look at the implications of today’s marketplace data. We hope that you will share these stories across your institution and use them to start critical conversations to drive not only enrollment strategy but discussions of curricular offerings, student support, and course design. While we’ll highlight findings and stories worthy of closer attention, each article includes an easy-to-use Tableau dashboard that you and your colleagues can use to drill deep in the data yourself.

Also in this series:

  • Yield Rates are Declining - Why?

Jon Boeckenstedt (DePaul University)

It may be time to challenge some assumptions about the international enrollment boom.

Sit in on any discussion about enrollment in America’s colleges and universities, and it won’t be long until someone brings up international enrollment. The US continues to be a strong attractor of talent worldwide, despite our own struggles domestically; and perhaps our biggest export—American culture—can be seen as a leading cause of the boom in international enrollment. Of course, a big part of American culture revolves around the economic power of our nation, and the US is still viewed by students in other countries as the home of tremendous educational variety and opportunity, and still a gateway to economic success.  Couple this with an increased willingness of China to allow students to study in the US, and numbers were bound to increase.

But perhaps the biggest driver of these increases is our own interest in international student markets. Enrollment of domestic students has fallen after a long, continuous spiral upward since WWII, and population counts and projections do not show a strong rebound on the horizon.  As the world continues to shrink, most campuses have had epiphanies about how important broader cultural and international context is for graduates who claim to be ready for the world that awaits them; international students can help diversify our institutions and expand student the perspectives and experiences which will be critical to a more global economy.

And finally, against a very slow economic recovery from the recession in that began in 2007, and the resultant explosion in institutional financial aid budgets, international students present a diversified (if less stable) revenue stream to keep institutions financially viable.  Even before 2007, though, colleges saw demographic futures that were not rosy, and began ramping up international recruitment.

But is the picture of international enrollment as rosy as it appears?

Let's Look at What's Actually Happening

For example, when we look into the IPEDS data, we find that:

  1. While international enrollment is still a tiny fraction of overall enrollment, it has grown much faster, and continues to grow after domestic enrollment has peaked. Even while graduate and undergraduate enrollment drop, graduate enrollment of international students is up 46% since 2004, and undergraduate enrollment of international students is up 70% since 2004.
  2. This increase is not true across the board – it’s most significant along the coasts, and for some (but not all) urban institutions. Rural institutions have had a harder time attracting international undergraduates.
  3. Note that while international enrollment has increased across every region, you can see dramatic differences when selecting institutions by control. For instance, private, not-for-profit enrollment has grown dramatically, while public enrollment has grown but at a slower pace.
  4. Meanwhile, enrollment at for-profit institutions has been more modest in all regions except the Mid-East, and has fallen in several parts of the country. And at all types of institutions, growth of undergraduates has outstripped growth of graduate students.

The story: Nationally, international enrollment is up – but not for everyone. See for yourself: you can explore the enrollment data using the "opportunity dashboard" at the end of this article.

What This Means: The High Tide Doesn't Lift All Boats

While it’s often believed that high tide lifts all boats, in this case the metaphor fails to describe the market for international students in the US. If you look more deeply at the data, you see that some institutions are parlaying inherent advantages like location into market dominance while others have yet to catch up. Have any institutions like yours been successful over the last decade? Or is your profile one that has not yet caught on with international students?

Unfortunately, many discussions on campus about international enrollment tend to focus on the short-term enrollment benefits to the institution, and are strictly mechanical, as in “Could we add X more students and generate X more dollars of net tuition revenue against X dollars of incremental expenses?"

If you decide to pursue greater international enrollment, it’s prudent to take lessons from institutions with big populations, or similar institutions in other parts of the country: What curricular offerings appeal to international students? What type of regulatory burdens must you ramp up to handle with reporting on students with visas? Are your systems and facilities set up to handle students who don’t go home for Thanksgiving?

Most institutions seem to like having larger populations of international students.  It’s easy to see why that’s the case, but it’s also important to realize that doing it right is more important than doing it in the first place.

Find the Opportunities for Your Institution

Let’s dig deeper. Using the “opportunity dashboard” provided below, compare your institution to your peers and to really explore where you may have untapped opportunities. You can use View 4 to find your type of institution and see what percentage of international enrollment is distributed there (orange squares show higher concentrations; purple squares are lower, and grays are in the middle), and you can use the filters available in View 5 to find colleges like yours and then compare international student enrollment in 2004 and 2014.

Filter more to see where international students have increased in raw numbers and percent-of-totals since 2004: Is there time to get on board? Can your institution buck the trend?

This is where strategy enters the discussion. You can look at these trends fatalistically—that is, you can believe they are destiny.  If numbers and trends at your type of institution in your region are not strong, you might be inclined to accept it as fate. On the other hand, you might believe that these numbers can be view opportunistically, where an institution like yours can take advantage of a distinctiveness or a missed opportunity by competitors. That’s when it’s time to do your homework. Use the data to start having conversations like these:

Look at the value proposition you present to international markets
In 2004, almost 44% of all international students in the US enrolled in doctoral institutions in cities, compared to just 21% of domestic students (see tab 4 on the dashboard below for this data). It seems clear that a recognized name in a prominent city confers great advantage when trying to attract international students to your campus. This trend became slightly more pronounced by 2014, with 46% of international students enrolling in this type of university in 2014, while the domestic percentage had fallen to 19%.

If you don’t have an Ivy League name, how do you convey your value to international students? The American liberal arts college is not always well understood in America; it's even a greater challenge to explain the concept to students in countries where education is focused on professions, and where students are often slotted into those programs prior to secondary school. Is it possible to present a value proposition to those students? Or would resources to do so be more efficiently distributed in other ways?

How much can students tell about your campus environment from half-way around the world? It would be difficult to imagine a prospective student who has not heard of New York or San Francisco. Media and reputation have already bridged the “psychic distance,” students are certain to feel. But what about Carbondale, Illinois, or Denton, Texas? If the media and reputation have not already done this for you, there is real work to do in helping students understand how they might fit at your university.

Look at how you calculate financial need
Remember, if you are viewing international enrollment as a revenue opportunity, you must take all these numbers, but especially graduate numbers, with a grain of salt. Much of the increase at large doctoral institutions at the graduate level, for instance, could be coming from students who are fully funded by the university. Your MBA or MIS program, for instance, may be attractive to international students but may not be viable if you expect all students to fund themselves.

The same is true, to a lesser extent, with undergraduate students. Calculating financial need is difficult enough for US citizens; it is a completely different art for students outside the US, especially in light of currency fluctuations and rapidly changing political climates.

What are your unique opportunities? Here is the dashboard. Dig in for yourself and see what you find:


How to use this dashboard:

I've prepared a two-minute video tutorial showing how to navigate and drill deep into these views of the national data.

Exploring 5 views of international enrollment data:

This month’s Tableau dashboard takes a look at the increase in international enrollment in US colleges and universities (technically, what IPEDS and the federal government refer to as “nonresident alien” enrollment, that is, everyone who is neither a US citizen nor permanent resident.) The dashboard is interactive, and allows you to pare down the information to look at only the data that is most interesting to you, showing trends and revealing—perhaps—where opportunities lie.

  1. The first tab shows trends for international and domestic enrollment over time.
  2. The second tab breaks out the stacked bars from the first chart, to show greater detail. Note that the y-axes are not set to the same scale on purpose to increase visibility.  The filters allow you to limit the institutions included in the analysis.
  3. The third tab breaks out enrollment in 2004 and 2014 by region, and shows percent change over that time.  Again, the filters help you look at subsets of institutions: For instance, notice the dramatic differences between public, private for-profit, and private not-for-profit institutions over time.
  4. In the fourth tab, you can get a sense of where international students are over- and under-represented statistically. If, for instance, the percentage value on the lower chart is higher than the same square on the upper chart, you can see that international students are over-represented. If you wish, you can limit your view to just your Carnegie type and your urbanicity (check with your IR office to see how you describe your institution in the surveys.) Whatever your filters, the view for domestic, and the view for international, will always each total to 100%.
  5. In the fifth tab, find colleges like yours and then compare international student enrollment in 2004 and 2014.

As always, I offer the usual caveats about IPEDS data: there may be manual data entry errors, misinterpretation of data definitions, and occasional missing data.