The Third Wave of Digital Recruiting Tools

The pandemic made virtual recruiting a necessity. New technologies could transform it (almost) completely.
Even as in-person recruiting efforts resume, international offices should continue thinking about how emerging digital tools can expand the reach of existing recruitment efforts. Illustration: Shutterstock

During the pandemic, most institutions pivoted international student recruitment activities online out of necessity—virtual events, virtual college fairs, and virtual counseling, to name a few. Too often, though, these virtual tools “come off as a shadow of the real thing,” says Clark Egnor, EdD, coordinator of international programs for the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission. 

Student behaviors and expectations began shifting even before the pandemic, and a host of old and new international education providers were expanding the scope of the services they were offering online. 

“The transition to digital acceleration has been building for some time, but the pandemic really accelerated it,” Pieter Funnekotter, CEO of United Kingdom Education Advisory Service (UKEAS), a UK-focused provider of counseling and application support, said during a summer webinar on emerging technologies. 

Some of these next-generation tools are being built by entrepreneurs who are themselves alumni of international education experiences. Others are longtime industry veterans; at least one ran a higher education institution before expanding into recruitment services. The education technology (EdTech) companies are as international as the students they serve, with headquarters in the Americas, Europe, and Oceania and offices in many other countries. 

In many cases, artificial intelligence and machine learning are being layered on top of service models that have existed for years or decades. The companies are attracting EdTech investors, and one company (at minimum) is considered a “unicorn”—a term for a startup that ultimately could be worth a billion dollars or more. Some developers say that the international education market itself is the true unicorn.

“My concern is that we don’t try to put the genie back in the bottle.” —David Pilsbury

Even as in-person recruiting efforts resume, international offices should continue thinking about how emerging digital tools can expand the reach of existing recruitment efforts. “My concern is that we don’t try to put the genie back in the bottle,” David Pilsbury, DPhil, deputy vice chancellor international at Coventry University in the United Kingdom, said during the webinar on emerging technologies. 

That may prove particularly important for U.S. institutions, which are just beginning to dip their toes into using new technologies and tools. “Engaging with the opportunities emerging in this space is what has driven [our] success,” Pilsbury said. 

The Third Wave

Edward Harcourt, PhD, senior vice president and managing director at QS, argues that these new recruitment tools represent the third wave of aggregation. The first wave occurred during the proliferation of international education in the years following World War II; the second came with the internet—and with it, ample access to information about global higher education offerings. “Today, what we’re seeing is the application of the digitization of the market,” he said during the webinar. 

This new wave is also a response to changing student behaviors. “Our students can do almost everything online, and it’s instant gratification,” says George F. Kacenga, PhD, executive director of undergraduate admissions at Purdue University Northwest. “As of now, we’re not providing this in most instances in higher education, and technology is going to get us there.”

Providers stress the value in addressing long-standing challenges in international recruitment. According to Ryan Trainor, CEO and cofounder of Adventus.io, one in five international students change institutions after arriving at their destination country. “Somewhere we’re letting the student down,” he said during the webinar. 

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Both institutions and providers see digital recruitment tools as a way to better reach students from diverse markets or address limitations to travel caused by budget cuts and ongoing COVID-19 restrictions. Yet providers—many of whom staff offices in multiple sending markets—do not see face-to-face interactions disappearing. 

“What we’re seeing is a shift in what face-to-face means,” Funnekotter said, with platforms and data providing more personalized experiences for students to help them make better decisions with the guidance of counselors and advisers. 

Providers also are focusing on aggregating and sharing data with institutions, including competitive analyses, market trends, and insights from students engaging with portals. In an era when differentiation is becoming increasingly important, such data can help institutions “make decisions about what programs they want to highlight and what markets they want to pursue,” Egnor says. 

Through the Funnel

The end goal of next-generation tools is to place “more people in the opportunity funnel and multiply the conversations we have,” Harcourt said. But different digital platforms address different parts of the recruitment funnel, starting with offering advice about international study to high school students, followed by portals that provide information, rankings, and guidance about specific colleges, programs, and areas of study. Then come platforms that connect agents with students and institutions, conversion platforms, and, finally, solutions that help students navigate the processes of applying and enrolling. While emerging solutions may straddle two or more of these areas, none address the entire funnel.

“At each stage of that journey, there are different challenges that schools face, and these companies are coming up with digital solutions,” Egnor says. “It can be overwhelming.”

According to experts, here’s how new tools will affect the funnel.

Information and Advice 

Websites that rank institutions are evolving into an international student ecosystem, often with counselors and advisers helping students navigate the experience of exploring, and ultimately selecting, schools and programs. A more personalized approach, supplemented with artificial intelligence (AI) that matches data from institutions and students, will help institutions address the chief complaint about virtual college fairs and other online tools: the quality of the leads. “We get a lot [of leads], but they don’t convert,” Egnor says.

“At each stage of that journey, there are different challenges that schools face, and these companies are coming up with digital solutions. It can be overwhelming.” —Clark Egnor

Platform developers and institutions stress the potential of these solutions to tap growing and underserved markets. At the University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC), for example, a partnership with Studyportals has focused on programs that departments “don’t traditionally have a lot of international students in,” as well as bolstering undergraduate applications, says David L. Di Maria, EdD, senior international officer and associate vice provost for international education at UMBC.

Studyportals is itself focused on a very large niche: the 70 percent of international students who prefer to apply on their own and engage with institutions directly, according to Edwin van Rest, MSc, the company’s CEO and cofounder. These students tend to come from a more diverse range of backgrounds and markets, but for institutions, “they’re more difficult to influence on their own,” he said during the webinar.

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Another provider, BridgeU, is addressing a growing market that spans borders and boundaries. “What’s happened over the last 10 years is that international schools have ballooned and become a very important and visible niche of the K–12 market,” Lucy Stonehill, co-founder and CEO of BridgeU, said during the webinar. By 2026, more than 16,000 international schools in more than 120 countries will teach nearly 10 million students—as much as two-thirds of all globally mobile candidates, she said.

Information through BridgeU, which provides career guidance software to international school counselors, can help break through the fragmented, reputational “my sister or uncle went to that institution” nature of college advising, Stonehill said.

While ranking websites have always given students some sense of where they stand, new technologies can help students identify gaps in more productive ways. “You never want to discourage a student,” van Rest said, noting the goal instead should be “identifying an obstacle you might have if you want to come to this university because this is what you’re missing financially or academically versus saying, ‘This is not in the cards for you.’”


Like the evolution in ranking and counseling services, aggregation platforms are following in the footsteps of the earlier emergence of the subagent model. The difference was that previous aggregation models were “a black box,” said Trainor, whose Adventus.io site expects to have close to 6,000 recruiters and agents and 1,200 institutions on its platform by year’s end. “This gives the ultimate opportunity for the industry to have access and optics around what’s going on.”

In fact, ApplyBoard’s Meti Basiri would prefer to retire the term “agent,” instead calling the 7,500 organizations the aggregator works with “recruitment partners.”

“We’re investing in the industry and focusing on making it more transparent,” says Basiri, the startup’s cofounder and chief marketing officer. “The benefits are for everyone.”

Institutions have concerns about striking a balance between expanding to new markets and maintaining standards, particularly across a large platform. “Schools have expressed concerns about quality control because [platforms] work with a lot of agents, and they’re not sure they’d have direct contact to ensure their schools are represented in an ethical way,” Egnor says.

“The best way to tell if a partner or agent is trustworthy is to work with them for 10 years and get to know their results.” —Adam Roberts

However, ApplyBoard and EduCo, a company dedicated to international student success, both stress the potential of digital platforms to track agents’ results and trustworthiness. “The best way to tell if a partner or agent is trustworthy is to work with them for 10 years and get to know their results,” Adam Roberts, EduCo’s senior vice president, said during the webinar. “Put on top of that some automated processes for compliance, document checks, and outcomes, and you’ve got an extra layer of security.”

Conversion and Application Support 

For many institutions, one of the biggest gaps in today’s recruitment funnel is accurately estimating international enrollment—per school and by program—before students arrive. Enrollment solutions may ultimately be where AI and machine learning (ML) truly “move those metrics,” says Amy Baker, CEO of Professionals in International Education (PIE), which sponsored the June webinar.

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QS’s Harcourt argued that his organization’s “nuanced machine learning algorithm” will ultimately increase conversion rates and improve the quality of the applicant experience. Drawing from more than 200 data points, the algorithm will help identify students most likely to enroll, relying on additional data on how students interact with counselors to “keep the model educated,” he said. In similar fashion, EduCo’s Roberts says the company’s data from working with students from 100 countries found that “the best way to improve retention and graduation is moving the right students into the right programs.”

Once students decide to apply, automation and AI will help simplify the process for them and admissions officials. Along with checking applications for completeness and running eligibility checks, these systems could support risk assessments in the application process. This feature is particularly beneficial for smaller institutions that lack in-house capacity for evaluating credentials “and usually push that back on the student,” Egnor says. “It puts a financial burden on the student, and they may end up going to another school where they don’t have to do that.”

“The application enrollment stage is where we’re looking for solutions, especially for the smaller schools that lack that capacity,” he says. 

What’s Next

For institutions, the sheer number of platforms and services may feel overwhelming. Participants in the PIE webinar also cited questions about quality, overlap with existing agent networks, and the risk involved in investing time and money for a slow or limited return. 

Kacenga argues that return on investment considerations must evolve with the technology. “The analyses won’t make sense in the context of one recruitment cycle,” he says. “Students are entering the funnel as high school freshmen or earlier.”

Institutions also will need to explore new models of partnership with providers, according to Pilsbury. “We need to be good at what we’re good at…and we have to learn to let go and trust these guys,” Pilsbury said. “It’s not 1977. We’ve got to engage with these guys in driving innovation. If we don’t, their wave of innovation will be crashing over us.”

To that end, it will be important for universities and partners to share more of their data—including information about retention and success once international students arrive on campus and subsequent employment outcomes, Trainor said. “At the end of the day, we’re talking about democratizing access to courses around the world,” he said. “We all need to solve how to enable [students] to make the right choices.”

Providers also stressed the importance of not letting AI-enabled tools such as chatbots eliminate person-to-person contact, whether that contact is face-to-face or online in a post-COVID world. “There are lots of opportunities out there, but ultimately we’re talking about people’s lives, so we have to be very careful,” van Rest said.

And while institutions explore digital tools, they may avoid in-person efforts at their peril, according to Di Maria. “I don’t think it’s a digital-only or a digital-first future,” he says. “We’ve got to continue to engage in person, and institutions that don’t do that are going to be at a disadvantage.”  •

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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.