Practice Area Column
International Education Leadership

Six Strategies for International Student Recruitment: COVID’s Long-Term Impact

Approaches for leaders to keep in mind as they navigate a changed recruitment landscape. 
“We’re going to go through a short phase of institutions recovering financially who might say they’re going to do activities virtually for a year or two—but the competitive advantage will come back to in-person recruiting,” says one recruitment expert. Illustration: Shutterstock
 

As institutions return fully to in-person programming this fall, the unclear picture of international enrollments, ongoing budget pressures, and related uncertainties will complicate efforts to map out post-COVID recruitment strategies. Here are six ways leaders are thinking about international student recruitment in the postpandemic landscape.

1. The End of the Funnel

The explosion of online recruiting practices during the pandemic is unlikely to completely subside, particularly given resource challenges and the emergence of a new generation of sophisticated platforms and tools. For those reasons, George F. Kacenga, PhD, calls the traditional recruitment funnel an “illusion.”

“There are now multiple funnels to get to the same place—active recruitment, digital recruitment, [and] virtual recruitment,” says Kacenga, executive director of undergraduate admissions at Purdue University Northwest. “There always will continue to be leads and prospects and applicants in terms of the progression—that hasn’t changed. But the multiple funnels need to be managed in parallel with each other.”

While institutions continue their digital recruitment efforts, it is vital to return to in-person approaches. Kacenga says in-person activities, including agents and school visits, will likely retain the highest yields.

“We’re going to go through a short phase of institutions recovering financially who might say they’re going to do activities virtually for a year or two—but the competitive advantage will come back to in-person recruiting.” —George Kacenga

“We’re going to go through a short phase of institutions recovering financially who might say they’re going to do activities virtually for a year or two—but the competitive advantage will come back to in-person recruiting,” he says.

However, there’s a twist: When managed effectively, the combination of in-person activities and expanded virtual services could boost overall student interest and yield across all channels. 

2. Integrating Internationalization

Many institutions are focusing on internationalization efforts at higher leadership levels. “Having those international students on our campuses is really important,” says Clark Egnor, EdD, coordinator of international programs at the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission. And with enrollment pressures prompting schools to rethink how they recruit and retain all students in recent years, some institutions are including international recruiting in broader initiatives and strategic plans. Other shifts in student recruitment, such as test-optional applications, also impact international applicants.

“If you can leverage most of your resources toward solving a problem or accessing an opportunity, you’re going to be more successful than in an organizational culture where the international office works in a silo.” —David L. Di Maria

But as institutions take a more integrated look at recruiting, the opportunity exists to weave in broader internationalization goals in systematic ways. At the University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC), for example, efforts to create an overall strategic enrollment plan dovetailed with an emerging strategic planning process around internationalization, says David L. Di Maria, EdD, senior international officer and associate vice provost for international education.

“The UMBC culture is very collaborative, so we were able to get multiple units to buy in—literally—with resources,” Di Maria says. “If you can leverage most of your resources toward solving a problem or accessing an opportunity, you’re going to be more successful than in an organizational culture where the international office works in a silo.”

At UMBC, integrated efforts brought together about 60 staff members from different departments into an international enrollment steering committee and two related subcommittees, which focused on recruitment and the student experience once students are on campus. Along with mapping out communications to students, the committees are focusing on journey mapping—“knowing what the student experience is from a 30,000-foot level and drilling down to the individual [experience],” Di Maria says.

3. State Consortia

While the first state consortia dedicated to international education dates back to the previous century, more than 30 states now have these groups. While their goals and structures vary, consortia help institutions collaboratively “leverage our study stateness,” says Egnor. For example, consortia can attract the attention of government-sponsored study programs in ways individual institutions cannot.

In Indiana, Kacenga and peers from several other institutions are working to create a state consortium. Objectives include creating materials and messaging “highlighting Indiana as a study destination,” combining resources for tours, serving as a clearinghouse for projects at research universities, and advocating for international education at the state level, Kacenga says. 

And consortia don’t just provide opportunities to leverage institutional knowledge and resources within states. Egnor regularly meets with colleagues from out-of-state consortia to “brainstorm ideas and share information about what we’re reading and what we’re hearing,” he says.

4. Student Ambassadors

Some institutions are tapping the experiences of existing and former international students to connect with prospective peers in authentic ways. 

At UMBC, the Global Ambassador Program was launched during the pandemic so online international students who “aren’t going to have an on-campus experience have affinity with the institution,” Di Maria says. The 10 international students in the current cohort communicate with prospective students, host webchats, lead presentations, conduct workshops, and guide newly enrolled students. A partnership with Unibuddy, a peer-to-peer student recruitment platform, will integrate current students as support to prospective students “from inquiry through enrollment,” Di Maria says. When campuses reopen this fall, ambassadors will host in-person activities for international students.

“Forty percent [of prospective students] stated they consulted alumni from universities they were interested in when deciding where to study.” —Sandra Rincón and Gretchen Dobson

International student alumni are also a group to tap for recruitment efforts. In their new book, Engaging International Alumni as Strategic Partners, Sandra Rincón, MSc, and Gretchen Dobson, EdD, summarize survey results that capture the importance of international alumni in student recruitment: “Of the 29,500 prospective international students surveyed in the 2020 QS International Student Survey, 40 percent stated they consulted alumni from universities they were interested in when deciding where to study.”

Students and recent alumni also can make marketing efforts more authentic, especially on emerging social media networks such as TikTok, so long as the “genesis, ideas, and delivery come from students,” Kacenga says. Current students also play a key role in expressing the dimensions of an institution that are difficult to articulate otherwise, such as extracurricular activities and campus life. “If it’s just academic, students can do that online,” Egnor says.

5. Differentiation

Song Hoffman, PhD, director of international admissions at the University of Delaware (U Del), envisions a “Sears catalog” approach to marketing her school to prospective students—but not the one-size-fits-all catalog that once was mailed to millions of people. Instead, initial marketing efforts should be framed around the iconic element that makes students in each market want to attend—“what they want that they didn’t know they wanted,” Hoffman says. 

That image varies dramatically from country to country. For example, students in Brazil expect a college experience like the ones they’ve seen in the movies, while those in Africa and Central Asia are intrigued by her university’s relationship with President Joe Biden, Hoffman says.

Hoffman envisions experiments in emerging markets including targeted customer research—“what they want to hear, what makes them click,” she says—to help refine these differentiated images and messages. 

This approach also entails differentiation in marketing. For example, U Del’s recent campaign in Azerbaijan involves not only a wide range of social media but also a billboard in Baku, the capital city. “It’s a mix of digital and in your face,” Hoffman says.  

6. Data Analytics

New digital recruitment platforms are promising more comprehensive data to help institutions make informed decisions about programs and markets. But to do so, international offices need to build their own internal capacity, Kacenga argues.

“That skill set needs to be broader than just the one person in [institutional research (IR)] who is a liaison to the international office,” he says. “It’s something we all need to get more familiar with.”

International office staff can develop data analytics skills through short-term programming and certification programs, or by partnering with faculty members teaching econometrics or advanced data modeling, Kacenga says. While IR will always play a critical role in data analysis, “investing in ourselves as professionals so we can identify trends on our own is an essential piece,” Kacenga says.

“What we’re hearing now, and the data we’re getting from aggregators confirm, is that students want flexibility, affordability, microcredentials, and shorter programs so there’s an entire pathway to a career—and it starts with small steps.” —Clark Egnor

If budget allows, international offices also should consider investing in customer relationship management (CRM) systems that can track the entire student journey, allowing decisions on everything from scholarships and campus visits to the number of touchpoints made to each student across the institution, Kacenga says. CRMs provide a rich data resource that benefits several areas on campus, helping to engage students well beyond graduation.

However, international offices with tight budgets may not be able to invest in new data systems. Partnering with other offices on campus that have expertise or funding in this area can help streamline engagement with an international student from prospect to student to alum. Building solid institutional infrastructure to support the student-to-alum pipeline will have far-reaching benefits on campus in the long term.

Egnor predicts that better data will ultimately drive bigger changes in curricula and programming for international students than the intensive English and bridge programs of years past. 

“What we’re hearing now, and the data we’re getting from aggregators confirm, is that students want flexibility, affordability, microcredentials, and shorter programs so there’s an entire pathway to a career—and it starts with small steps,” he says.

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.

About NAFSA

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.