Learning in the Lean Years

Why international enrollment management professionals should rethink what return on investment means and how to measure it.
Photo: Shutterstock

There was a time not long ago when measuring success in international enrollment management was as simple as offering up one figure: year-on-year percentage growth. Between roughly 2006 and 2015, international students enrolled at U.S. universities in record numbers. For many institutions, small efforts saw big gains during this decade of steady growth. 

However, due to changing economic and political conditions, the annual number of new international students enrolling at U.S. institutions has been slowly declining in recent years. The industry appears to be on the downslope of the boom. In these leaner times, enrollment teams may be under increasing pressure to account for return on investment (ROI), a phrase now familiar to most international enrollment professionals. 

A plethora of tools, resources, articles, presentations, and books have been delivered on the subject of fiscal accountability in international enrollment management. But can these tools serve enrollment professionals equally well when times are lean as they do when they are abundant? Do the tools adequately capture the totality of enrollment teams’ work and the value that international students bring to their campus communities? 

While contemplating how to confront new challenges in international education and recruitment, it is also a good time to reconsider how institutions benefit from international students—and then turn a critical eye toward assessing the efforts made to enroll them. 

Existing Tools to Measure ROI in International Enrollment

Early efforts at defining the value of international student enrollment generally placed it into a broad context by measuring the impact students made to regional and national economies. The Institute of International Education (IIE) has conducted an annual survey on international student enrollment at U.S. colleges and universities since 1919. In its most basic form, the Open Doors report has been able to illustrate the significant, collective presence of international students across the United States. As the survey and its resulting reports evolved, financial impact estimates were added and analyzed for each state. 

Today, IIE uses NAFSA’s International Student Economic Value Tool to help calculate the financial impact data. The NAFSA tool identifies one metric of the financial contribution as the estimated number of jobs supported by international students. Users can view statistics on a national level, by state, and even by congressional district. Similarly, the U.S. Department of Commerce, which counts international student enrollment as an export, computes annual figures on financial contribution and numbers of jobs supported.

These contextual reports help colleges and universities make the case for the value of international students to their communities. However, the reports have limitations for professionals who are hoping to assess their individual efforts and identify the most effective ways to use their limited budgets. 

layers of colored rectangles
The Scope of Institutional Efforts 

Enrollment offices are notorious for absorbing an outsized portion of their institution’s operating budget. International recruitment operations can be particularly expensive due to the costs associated with global travel: long-haul plane tickets, travel insurance, visa fees, and more. In order to justify and account for their spending, professionals seek ways to measure the efforts associated with each budget dollar. 

To meet this challenge, some universities have borrowed methods for assessing profit and loss from the corporate sector, wherein the formula simply divides revenue earned by costs incurred. Because these models rely on an institution’s ability to collect and track meaningful data, their popularity coincided with the proliferation and sophistication of enrollment customer relations management (CRM) tools (e.g., Slate, Salesforce, etc.) in recent years.

In 2016, a group of professionals developed and made available an institutional ROI calculator for tracking international student recruitment. The aptly named Return on Investment for International Educators tool attempts to overcome the shortcomings of corporate ROI models by capturing the broad array of revenue and cost categories, unique to international enrollment teams. 

For example, the model includes auxiliary revenue such as parent and alumni donations. Under costs, a measurement of  time and effort is added. Its creators envisioned a “culture of evidence” wherein institutions weave this kind of data into larger strategic plans.  Although this tool still relies primarily on financial metrics, it reflects a significant leap forward in the effort to fully capture the broad and complex costs and benefits involved in international enrollment management. 

The Unique Value of ROI in International Enrollment Management

In spite of recent advancements, there are several limitations to applying a traditional approach to ROI in a higher education setting. Below are some differences that are specific to international enrollment management that must be considered when evaluating data.

  • Customer intake: Few businesses turn away customers, but most institutions do. In fact, a university’s reputation is measured, in part, by the number of students it turns away: its admissions rate.
  • Long recruitment cycles: It may take 2 to 3 years of engagement before a student is ready and able to enroll—far longer than in most industries—which makes it necessary to track the outcomes of recruitment efforts over multiple years. 
  • Long customer relationship: The student-university relationship extends well beyond a simple transaction. Students enroll in programs with multiple points of engagement that can last anywhere from a month to several years. 
  • Multiple revenue streams: Revenue collection is long term and multifaceted. In addition to tuition dollars and living expenses, students support local and regional economies in transportation, tourism, consumer goods, job creation, and more. Their contributions may continue and diversify past their original academic program. Some undergraduate students may stay on for postgraduate programs, donate a portion of their earnings to the institution’s endowment, and eventually become a source of jobs and internships for subsequent students.
  • Intangible returns: Universities are not purely profit driven. Simple ROI calculators overlook the intangible returns that universities gain from enrolling international students. Yet international students contribute to research, intercultural competencies, and their university’s global reputation in numerous and varied ways.
  • Overlapping efforts: Many international enrollment offices are tasked with more than just recruitment, thus making ROI calculations more complex. For example, the decision must be made on whether to allocate a professional’s salary based on the time spent on recruitment versus student services or other tasks. Additionally, it can be a challenge to determine from which budget the funds should be taken for an international trip that has the dual purpose of alumni engagement and the management of university exchange partner relationships.
  • Insufficient technology: Although CRMs have made it much easier for enrollment offices to track the source of student leads over longer periods of time, this digital transformation is still in an early phase. Many institutions still struggle with antiquated tools that are meant to serve the entire campus community and are thus limited in their ability to analyze and track student data for recruitment purposes. 
  • Diverse landscape: While the scope of this article has focused on undergraduate international enrollment at four-year institutions, the international higher education landscape is vast and varied, making it hard to establish industry-wide guidelines and benchmarks. 
Evolution of a Tailored and Sustainable ROI Model

ROI assessment has an important role to play in the profession and, paired with the increasingly complex swathes of data now available, has the potential for further sophistication. An effective, sustainable ROI tool for international enrollment is one that supports the boom years as well as the lean years. However, the traditional heavy focus on simplified cost of acquisition models, borrowed from the corporate sector, make problematic assumptions about the value of international students. 

“University leaders need to move the conversation away from a race to keep driving numbers…[and] ask themselves, what does it look like to craft a globally diverse classroom?” —Rahul Choudaha

This fixation on metrics has perhaps pushed the profession in the wrong direction—incorrectly presuming that the enrollment of international students is purely profit driven and overlooking important student development and reputational goals that are central to the mission of most institutions. A sustainable ROI for international enrollment management aligns with the core values of the institution by incorporating qualitative goals alongside financial goals and places them within a broader regional context, experts say.  

Rahul Choudaha, cofounder of the research and consulting firm Dr. Education, has been a longtime proponent of adopting a process-oriented approach for measuring success in international student recruitment. He warns that reductive methods focused only on the bottom line will ultimately fail. 

“It’s time to pick up nonquantifiable variables,” says Choudaha. “University leaders need to move the conversation away from a race to keep driving numbers…[and] ask themselves, what does it look like to craft a globally diverse classroom?” A process-oriented approach, he argues, sets goals for continuous improvement. 

That list of nonquantifiable and process-oriented metrics, sometimes referred to as “soft returns,” should be tailored to the unique qualities of each institution. It might include goals such as student satisfaction, academic success, retention and graduation rates, employment placement, service to the campus or off-campus community, diversification of institutional enrollment (geographic, racial, economic, etc.), recruitment referrals, and alumni contributions (monetary and nonmonetary). Once an institution broadens its perspective on the contributions of international enrollment, methods of assessment can be adjusted accordingly. 

Further, regional and national data provide broader context to an organization’s singular efforts. Without it, leadership may wrongly attribute changes in enrollment to institutional successes and failures.

Rubric of recruitment considerations
Courtesy Jessica Sandberg
The Advancement of a Broader Definition of Success 

Expanding ROI to include nonmonetary returns is not an excuse to ignore fiscal responsibility or overlook the ever-increasing pool of illuminating data available to understand student motivation and decisionmaking. The calculation of annual recruitment costs against revenue and headcount is an important figure in the assessment of staff efforts and in informing future planning. 

However, these measurements must account for the long-term nature of the recruitment relationship and track efforts over multiple admissions cycles, as appropriate. For example, a high school sophomore encountered at a college fair in São Paulo, Brazil, in 2020 cannot be yielded until 2023, or perhaps even 2024 if the student elects to take a gap year. 

With the help of sophisticated CRMs, universities can monitor the outcomes of recruitment efforts by linking the age of the associated audience to the timeline for assessment. By tracking student leads over a multiyear period, the full impact of each effort can be better understood. 

The assessment of nonmonetary gains, on the other hand, may lie outside the power of the CRM. In order to evaluate these goals, qualitative tools such as faculty and student surveys, rubrics, testimonials, and narrative summaries may be more suitable. For example, to assess the value of international student participation in off-campus community service efforts, the international office might include a list of projects completed and testimonials from service providers in addition to basic calculations showing the hours spent and the number of student who participated. 

different colored arrows
Courtesy Jessica Sandberg
Beyond Profit and Loss

If the field continues to narrowly define success in international enrollment management in terms of headcount and net tuition revenue, it falls short for two reasons. First, while enrollment naturally ebbs and flows over time due to a range of influences, professionals see only failure on their part when numbers are down. Second, and more importantly, institutions lose if they overlook the broader and deeper enrichment that international students afford the campus and broader communities. 

Enrollment teams must look at the bigger recruitment picture; however, reducing the focus on the bottom line is not an easy step to make. It can be especially challenging in environments where budgets are tied to staff headcount and job security fears are very real. 

“In lean years, the commitment to international education may be tested because its value beyond international student enrollment comes into sharp relief,” says George Kacenga, one of the original creators of the Return on Investment for International Educators tool. 

“For many institutions, international enrollment supports the many other pillars of internationalization, including intensive English programs, education abroad, agreements with international university partners, and others,” he says. “When those funds contract, so too will associated efforts.”  

“In lean years, the commitment to international education may be tested because its value beyond international student enrollment comes into sharp relief.” —George Kacenga

But it is worth remembering that growth in international enrollment is never a guarantee, so institutions must take proactive steps to learn from both the growth and lean years. The industry will always be at the mercy of world events beyond anyone’s control. 

Further, the decision to study abroad will always demand a leap of faith on the part of the students and parents that institutions seek. That willingness to leap is a fluid, changeable, and immeasurable element. Enrolling in an overseas program is not a matter of course or a predictable rite of passage for international students in the way it can be for many domestic students. Geopolitical events will understandably influence the risk assessment that students and their families will make. 

But the lean years provide an opportunity as well. When international student recruitment becomes less profitable, it is a chance to reevaluate what approaches have worked well, what no longer works well, and where the future trends exist. It also provides a chance for enrollment professionals to look inward and support retention efforts. With some thought and effort, the profession can be defined not just by profit and loss, but by the meaningful contributions international students make to their institutions and surrounding communities.  •

About International Educator

International Educator is NAFSA’s flagship publication and has been published continually since 1990. As a record of the association and the field of international education, IE includes articles on a variety of topics, trends, and issues facing NAFSA members and their work. 

From in-depth features to interviews with thought leaders and columns tailored to NAFSA’s knowledge communities, IE provides must-read context and analysis to those working around the globe to advance international education and exchange.


NAFSA: Association of International Educators is the world's largest nonprofit association dedicated to international education and exchange. NAFSA's 10,000 members are located at more than 3,500 institutions worldwide, in over 150 countries.