Beyond the Numbers: Recruitment Strategies for a Changing World

As international students stay home, the financial impact of the pandemic on U.S. institutions could exceed $3 billion. Short-term strategies can lead to long-term successes.
Photo: Shutterstock

When Rachel Scholten, MA, joined Loyola University Maryland as its first director of international admission last November, she had an ambitious plan to jump-start international recruitment at the institution. Her first overseas trip was in February—just weeks before, as she puts it, “the world shut down.”

“This year has not played out as we expected,” Scholten says. “I have all these ideas about markets I wanted to target, and all of that is basically scrapped at this point.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the globe this spring, closing campuses and bringing most international travel to a standstill, institutions focused on the immediate challenges—helping students return home and planning for an uncertain fall. At the time this article went to press in early August, many institutions were in the beginning stages of mapping out recruitment plans for the coming academic year, all of which have been made more complex by the uncertainty of whether travel will resume in the spring.

“A lot of the decisionmaking is outside the control of colleges and universities,” Scholten says.

Yet many institutions already feel the impact, with even more likely to be affected as time goes on. Sharp drops in international student enrollment could cost U.S. institutions as much as $3 billion, according to a NAFSA study released in May. This financial impact has been described as an existential threat for internationalization efforts—and in some cases even for entire institutions. Even so, international admissions and enrollment leaders say it is important to look beyond the numbers and affirm the importance of the ongoing mission of internationalization.

“The reality of the situation is that there’s a huge financial component to international enrollment, but this is a moment where we’re going to see either a significant drawback of international engagement or a redoubling of effort,” says Rachel Salinas, MA, director of international admissions at Indiana University-Bloomington (IU). “We need to stand firm to the commitment of internationalization of campuses.”

Will History Repeat or Rhyme?

History does not repeat itself, as the aphorism says, but it often rhymes. COVID-19 is not the first time that a pandemic—or another major disruption, such as September 11, 2001—has affected international student mobility, and past experience suggests that these impacts can be temporary.

One oft-cited data point: From SARS and the swine flu to Ebola and Zika, an analysis of Open Doors data conducted by the Institute of International Education (IIE) found that study abroad numbers reliably returned to their previous levels within 2 years.

“This is a moment where we’re going to see either a significant drawback of international engagement or a redoubling of effort. We need to stand firm to the commitment of internationalization of campuses.” —Rachel Salinas

Since those crises, however, international enrollments in the United States have fallen from their peak in 2015–16, even as other receiving countries have set—and in some cases exceeded—ambitious goals of their own. The so-called “Trump effect” has now manifested itself in specific policies, most recently the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) directives involving international students and online coursework. While largely reversed, the guidance may still affect first-time international students. And the worldwide nature of the current pandemic, ongoing travel restrictions, and uncertainty about student visa processing all represent significant differences from past, largely regional shocks.

There is no doubt the pandemic will affect inbound students in the short term. An IIE survey conducted this spring found that nearly 9 in 10 colleges (88 percent) expect international enrollment to fall during the 2020–21 academic year. A survey of prospective international students conducted in June by QS found that more than half—59 percent—said the pandemic has impacted their plans to study abroad, up from 46 percent just a few months earlier. More than half (55 percent) also plan to delay or defer their entry until 2021, according to the survey.

For institutions, these changes in plans translate into sharp drops in revenue. The $3 billion cited by the NAFSA survey represents millions of dollars for individual institutions. The University of Arizona, for example, told Inside Higher Ed that its worst-case projections could exceed $33 million in lost revenue.

“A decline in international student enrollments in the United States will force institutions to revise international student enrollment management strategies, but they will take time to rebuild—most likely several years,” the NAFSA report states.

Five Survival Strategies for International Enrollment

International enrollment leaders face a scenario in which resources will be limited at the same time that many of the traditional tools for recruiting and enrollment—chief among them in-person travel—have been severely, if not entirely, limited.

“We’re back to what we’ve heard a lot since 2008—you need to do more with less,” says Colleen Flynn Thapalia, MS, senior director of graduate recruitment and enrollment marketing at Clarkson University’s Capital Region Campus.

Even so, international leaders are pivoting to maintain connections with prospective students and preparing for long-term changes. Here are a few strategies they are implementing.

1. Start with the incoming class.

Many institutions are focused on ensuring the incoming class of international students remains engaged, even if students choose to defer. The University of Minnesota-Twin Cities (UMN), for example, is offering a “gap semester” in hopes that international students who defer fall admission may attend in the spring if conditions improve. Either way, the question remains: “How do we keep students engaged over the course of the semester or year so they feel connected?” says Aimee Thostenson, MA, director of international student recruitment at UMN.

typography with numbers
Keeping international students in the incoming class engaged is a top priority for many institutions seeking to maintain enrollment numbers this academic year. Photo: Shutterstock

Along with determining which activities deferred international students may be able to participate in, the goal is to create open communication so students remain “excited about studying here,” she says.

Since uncertainty is stretching student timelines, re-recruiting—or reaching out to students who had expressed interest in the institution in previous years—may also be worth considering. “The value of the house list should not be overlooked,” Thapalia says. “These are people who raised their hands and expressed interest in your institution.”

Institutions should also become even more proactive in communications with prospective students and their families. At Loyola, decisions and changes are not only posted to the website but also sent as direct communications to prospective students and their parents.

“There’s so much anxiety about going to college for the first time, and for international students, [there are] so many steps between applying and attending,” Scholten says. “Explaining the rationale [behind decisions] helps international students feel more comfortable.”

Talking frankly to incoming students about broader issues—including the growing movement toward racial justice in the United States and the nation’s response to the pandemic—is also critical. This is not an academic concern; the QS study said that more than half of prospective students (54 percent) are reconsidering where to study based on governments’ responses to the crisis, and almost none gave the United States high marks in that area. “It’s important to stop and think about what students are worrying about,” Scholten says. “They will respect you if you do that.”

2. Shift recruiting models.

Many institutions have shifted from a recruitment model to a more consultative approach in recent months. “We’ve moved toward saying, ‘How can we help you navigate everything that’s going on right now?’ and helping them feel like we’re going to support them through the decisionmaking process,” Salinas says. “That’s the biggest thing we can do.”

IU recruiters are holding more one-on-one meetings with prospective students, with advisers in the international student and scholar services (ISSS) office providing added support. Another key has been involving other members of the university community—faculty, current students, alumni, student life and career services staff, and more—in programming. (See more in “Work with campus partners” below.)

Salinas says it is also important to maintain similar consultative relationships with the staff at schools in sending countries. “I want to be able to go back to an [international] school in 1 or 2 years and have the relationship not stalled,” she says.

3. Make the virtual pivot count.

Virtual college fairs, forums, and information sessions are the likely default for the immediate future, but to date they have had “mixed results,” Thostenson says. “The level of engagement varied from school to school and presentation to presentation.”

The proliferation of virtual programming also highlights another ongoing challenge—differentiating each university from the broader universe of U.S. institutions courting international students. “If everybody’s online, there’s going to be a lot more chatter to compete with,” Thostenson says. “We want to focus on how we can stand out.”

This is where the counseling approach to admissions comes into play, according to Salinas. Even before the move to virtual programming, IU had shifted its face-to-face workshops to focus on the overall college experience in the United States and strategies for applying.

“If everybody’s online, there’s going to be a lot more chatter to compete with. We want to focus on how we can stand out.” —Aimee Thostenson

“Making that type of recruitment a core of what we do has set us up nicely to continue that work in a virtual space,” she says. “The virtual space makes that a little more difficult, but that’s something that can be easily translated.”

Some constant challenges that come with virtual programming—including varying levels of internet connectivity and time zone differences—have not disappeared during the pandemic. What has changed, however, is the sheer volume of virtual events.

“We all feel the Zoom fatigue, and that’s obviously going to be felt by students as well,” Salinas says. “We’re going to have to find creative ways to engage—if students are invited to 55 virtual events in a month, what are we bringing that provides value?”

Thapalia says the key to providing value is “to provide service through virtual events, not just transactional information about how to apply and where to send your deposit,” she says. “It’s a virtual world, but it’s the personal connections that make the difference.”

4. Work with campus partners.

While international admissions and enrollment is housed in different departments depending on the institution, it is crucial for staff to collaborate even more closely with their peers in other areas to maximize efforts. For example, since both domestic and international recruiting face many of the same issues, closer relations with traditional admissions can mean that international students have access to much of the same programming.

“It’s been an equalizing factor,” Scholten says. And close relationships with student advisers and counselors in ISSS offices can amplify recruiting efforts. “We’ve been leaning into them a lot,” says Salinas.

Cooperating with other departments such as housing and admissions ensures as much flexibility for prospective students as possible—especially beneficial in uncertain times. “It promotes the university as helpful and supportive and concerned with the safety and well-being of our students,” Thostenson says.

The broader shift toward making standardized tests optional reflects a similar strategy for domestic students. “Even when things do get back to normal, there’s a shift in how we’re thinking about admissions in general,” Salinas says.

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Strategies that IEM professionals develop now will help sustain—and hopefully grow—enrollment numbers when recruitment and admissions activities return to normal. Photo: Shutterstock

Faculty also play key roles in international student recruitment, as many institutions have made them a larger part of in-person recruiting events in recent years. Virtual sessions showcase academic areas of study and provide insights into U.S. classroom culture. “Faculty present at these sessions really increases interest more than if it’s just an admissions person talking about what you need to do to apply,” Thapalia says.

One hidden positive, Scholten says, is that the lack of travel during the fall provides international staff the time and presence to build these kinds of relationships. Ordinarily, she says, “it’s very difficult to have a consistent presence and build the relationships to get things implemented.”

5. Look beyond the institution.

Collaboration can extend beyond campus. Big 10 universities recently partnered together for online recruitment activities, and third-party providers pivoted to offer college fairs and other multicampus activities online. “Students know this is one of the few ways to be able to reach people in real time,” Thapalia says. Institutions with good working relationships with agents also should consider exploring new strategies with them, she adds, “because you have trust with that party.”

“Even when things do get back to normal, there’s a shift in how we’re thinking about admissions in general.” —Rachel Salinas 

Institutions across the country have played a critical role in advocacy efforts, including successful efforts to reverse the recent ICE directives and earlier immigration challenges. At UMN, says Thostenson, advocacy “reaffirmed our institutional commitment to international students as a vibrant part of our community.”

The #YouAreWelcomeHere campaign, which began in 2016 at Temple University and has since drawn participation at more than 300 institutions, represents another important example of advocacy and cross-campus collaboration in action. “It’s all the more important now,” Thostenson says.

Looking Ahead

There is good news to be found in all the discouraging numbers surrounding international student mobility in the present moment. According to the QS survey, only small percentages of prospective international students ultimately plan to study in a different country than the United States (9 percent) or abandon studying abroad altogether (7 percent). Many U.S. institutions also report that large numbers of their current international students have remained in the United States and intend to continue their studies.

However, as normalcy resumes, international officers say that many parts of international enrollment will not. “To me, it’s hard to imagine recruitment looking the same anytime soon—a gymnasium packed full of people—even if we can travel,” Salinas says. “I can’t imagine in a year going back to the way things were. We need to reimagine for the longer term.”

Admissions and recruiting experts predict that many of the strategies detailed above—and in particular, the growing numbers and diversity of virtual programming offerings—will persist even after travel and in-person recruiting resume. Doing so can help open additional markets and provide access for students in countries too small for intentional recruiting efforts, Scholten says.

“Because recruitment travel is so labor-intensive and detail-oriented, this is giving us the time to look at implementing more digital and virtual strategies,” Thostenson adds. “Maybe that means we’ll come to a more balanced approach to in-person and virtual strategies and be in more places.”

At the same time, as institutions rebuild aggressive recruiting efforts with tight budgets, they will likely need to focus on areas with proven student demand, Thapalia says. “We’re looking for ways to diversify international student bodies on our campuses, and that’s going to remain an important long-term goal,” Thapalia says. “But now we’re looking at managing risk. There needs to be greater reflection as we come out of this time…How [enrollment] will bounce back and from what markets is a very unpredictable thing right now.”

“We need to remain student-centered in our recruitment processes. [International students] are not numbers—they’re fleshed out human beings with aspirations and worries.” —Aimee Thostenson

The other question is how institutions will look at the broader strategy of internationalization as they face ongoing structural challenges in the years to come. “Even before COVID, there were discussions about seeing international students as more than a way to balance the books,” Thapalia says. As international officers and staff advocate for broader internationalization on campus and connect their programs with their institutions’ mission statements and strategic goals, Thapalia suggests an added step.

“I would love to see international students help to operationalize those kinds of statements,” she says. They can do so, she says, by participating in ongoing campus discussions about mission, vision, and strategic plans, as well as in deliberations about narrower areas of focus such as accreditation standards. “Having robust participation among international students is a great way to build partnership among the campus community,” she says.

International office leaders will remain at the heart of this work, and as they work to keep students coming to their campuses, they can reinforce a simple message, according to Thostenson.

“We need to remain student-centered in our recruitment processes,” she says. International students, she adds, “are not numbers—they’re fleshed out human beings with aspirations and worries.”  •

About International Educator

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