Recruiting International Students

Overall first-time graduate enrollments from international students at US institutions did not climb in 2008-09 (though emerging markets in the Middle East still saw increases), according to a survey released this week by the Council of Graduate Schools. Reasons suggested for the stagnant numbers include the global recession and increased competition from other nations. Many undergraduate programs, however, have reported surges in international students; the University of Oregon announced a 16% jump in undergraduate international enrollment. And many institutions (among the most recent, Virginia Tech and the University of Nebraska) have set goals for doubling international enrollment in the next five or ten years.

Now more than ever, it's critical for enrollment managers in the US and Canada to be intentional in their approach to recruiting international students. Sarah Ramisch Stewart, Manager of International Admissions and Recruitment at Carleton University, offers some practical tips for planning your approach.

What You Should Be Asking

Approach international recruitment with clearly defined goals and an eye for finding the best match. Stewart suggests:

  • Define what your institution's unique offerings are
  • Determine what programs you want to highlight and promote internationally
  • Look for emerging international markets with the right student profile

Identifying the right student profile is critical, and not just in terms of academic interest. Stewart offers the example of a rural or lesser-known institution seeking applicants in Turkey. In this case, recruiters will likely see more return on their investment if they look for students outside Istanbul and the major cities, because those students will not be looking for a big city experience.

If you are recruiting for undergraduate programs, take a careful look at the secondary school system in the target country. If the country has an 11-year system, will you be able to admit students directly into your first-year program, or will they need bridge programs? If the country has a 13-year system, will you offer transfer credit and admit students into your upper division?

"Know the profile of the students in the target country, and how that profile meets your needs."
Sarah Ramisch Stewart, Carleton University

Entering A New Market

When starting direct recruitment in a new international market, Stewart suggests, institutions should be very intentional about their point of entry into the market. For example, individual visits to high schools in the target country may be a very useful approach for institutions that have established connections in that country, but institutions new to that market will find this approach less effective. Because their institutional name isn't known, they run the risk of poor student turn-out at their visits.

"Your goals the first time out ought to be market research and access to prospective students. For this reason, trying to do an independent, focused visit the first time out may not allow you to reap the full benefit."
Sarah Ramisch Stewart, Carleton University

Instead, consider a large education fair, which will give you exposure to a greater number of students. You'll be able to interact with them and hear what their questions and concerns are, and that information will be invaluable as you plan ahead. Another option is a group visit or organized tour. "You can benefit from the greater exposure that the presence of better-known institutions brings to get your school's name out there," Stewart notes.

The Preparation

"The most common pitfall is assuming the trip itself is the work. It is the preparation before travel and the follow-up after the trip that are the real keys to success."
Sarah Ramisch Stewart, Carleton University

"Do your due diligence," Stewart recommends. "Do as much research up front as possible." For example, make sure you are choosing the right event. Research the fair organizer or the tour organizer, read reports from previous years, seek references, and ensure that the event is attracting the right profile of students for your institution. "Ask what other institutions are attending -- are they your peers? Are you well aligned in this group? Does it make sense to be a part of this group?"

If you are planning to advertise in a publication in the target country, learn that publication's distribution and its reach into the intended market. Make sure it will help you reach your goals.

"Research the culture thoroughly. Look at holiday times, local cultural customs, appropriate methods of address, customs around gifts, whether to shake hands or not to. Consideration for the culture can convey to students and families that you really care about their transition to your institution."
Sarah Ramisch Stewart, Carleton University

"Don't do your planning last minute," Stewart adds. "Investigate what the best time of year for your audience is. When you do visits will affect who you are seeing." In the fall, you may see seniors in the midst of the application process. Later in the winter, "recruitment is just as crucial, but in this case you may be focusing on conversion." You may see students who have applied and need follow-up support, or juniors looking to apply the following year.

The main thing is to go in with a plan.

The Follow Up

"Timely, personal, individualized follow-up is key," Stewart remarks. "If you have had wonderful conversations with students and families on the ground, continue the communication. Make sure they feel looked after and ensure their conversion to a student at your institution."