A Recruitment Rollercoaster 

As institutions revisit strategies following the pandemic, disruption is the watchword—and an avenue for opportunity. 
Several years into resumed mobility, the pandemic continues to impact the dynamics of international recruiting. Image: Shutterstock

With the resumption of mobility, international recruiters at the Culinary Institute of America have returned to the road—and the sky. 

“We’re making sure we’re investing our time to meet face to face with not just students and parents but also our partners who were affected by the pandemic,” says Amanda Stevens,  assistant director of international admissions at the New York institution. 

But along with rebuilding relationships in its top markets, the institute is adding a new country each year to its priority list. 

“If the pandemic taught us anything, I think it’s that institutions can’t rely on any single country,” Stevens says. 

Amid the reverberations of the pandemic and ongoing economic and political instability around the globe, many international offices are revisiting their international recruitment plans. In doing so, they must address uncertainty in their budgets and even greater uncertainty about the markets and students they are trying to serve. 

“It’s the old Alice in Wonderland quote: ‘If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there,’” says Andrew Ness, international dean at Humber College in Toronto. “I worry that too many institutions are throwing spaghetti on the wall to see what sticks. You can do this in an economical way, but you have to be deliberate.”

COVID-19’s Long Shadow

Several years into resumed mobility, the pandemic continues to impact the dynamics of international recruiting. “COVID affected every country and every market,” says David L. Di Maria, senior international officer and associate provost for international education at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC). “There are a lot of lingering issues.”

The list of those issues is not only lengthy—but also constantly evolving and highly variable across individual countries or regions.  These challenges include economic and political instability; inflation and currency devaluations; and immigration challenges ranging from delays in visa processing to increased denials. 

Together, these factors can result in “a certain percentage of an incoming class you’re expecting to be arriving that doesn’t because of issues that are not necessarily on the radar of international offices,” says Di Maria. 

Such disruptions have also accelerated the pace of change in recruitment practices. For example, at Duke Kunshan University, prospective students have had to navigate rapidly changing messages about mobility and global politics, and “where the variable levels of optimism about global travel and movement hit during the applications cycle had an impact,” says Jessica Sandberg, dean of international enrollment management.

Finally, the data institutions have long relied on to hone strategic plans have become more difficult to use for forecasting. The sudden drop in student flows during COVID-19—followed in short order by the dramatic postpandemic surge in mobility—mean that the trends surfaced in national and global data “is just not informative,” says Rachel M. Scholten, director of undergraduate international admission at Loyola University Maryland. “You can’t use external data to make predictions or develop plans.”

The Strategic Imperative

Rapidly changing conditions in sending countries are not the only hurdles facing international student recruitment. Budget and staffing cuts in many international offices, combined with the increased cost of international travel, are challenging international offices to “think more creatively about how they are spending their time,” says Sandberg. Doing so involves revisiting existing strategies and relationships and seeking new opportunities.

“Part of it is a real maturation in not just how we approach enrollment planning, but how we execute,” says Ness.

Among the strategies for planning and execution:

Diversify with a Risk Management Mindset

Pressure on international offices to rebuild enrollments has “inspired a bit of panic—[many offices are thinking,] let’s go for volume, and if we’re seeing volume in one place, let’s pursue that market and fill the seats,” Scholten says. However, as currency devaluation, visa issues, or internal conflict cause pandemic-scale disruptions in individual countries or regions, it’s essential to also focus on new markets. 

While diversification has been a key element of recruitment plans for many years, it has taken on new importance with more localized uncertainty. Consider the impact of the end of scholarship programs in oil-rich nations in the mid-2010s or the current challenges Ukrainian students face, for example.

Applying a risk management lens to diversification strategies will become essential to mitigating these potential disruptions to student flows. 

“It’s not just looking at demographics and projected numbers of college-bound students, but also considering some of the instability that’s increased since 2020,” Di Maria says. “Maybe if you had students from [specific] locations with instability issues, it was something to monitor. Now it’s a global assessment that needs to take place.”

He recommends pursuing the same kind of due diligence often used to monitor study abroad destinations, such as advisories and intelligence from the State Department Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) and similar resources. Humbert stresses the importance of also monitoring potential immigration changes closer to home. “What’s the tenor of the government right now?” he asks. “It’s so crucial and such an unknown, and we have to pivot if we see a change.”

It’s also crucial to develop a cadence similar to that of the risk assessment used in planning for study abroad programs. Di Maria suggests forecasting potential threats for incoming classes a year or more out and then continuously monitoring for financial or geopolitical disruptions as each cohort goes through the funnel and progresses in their studies. For example, consider the potential impact of currency devaluation in students’ home countries on their ability to pay over a 2- or 4-year program of study.

“A lot can change over that time,” Di Maria says. “Do you have the ability to help students once they’re here?”

Get More Granular with Data

Given the challenges with predicting global mobility trends, it’s essential to also apply a much narrower, targeted lens. “Schools need to lean more on their own internal data,” Scholten says. They also must focus not just on particular countries or regions, but the individual schools or recruitment partners within them that have demonstrated potential strength.

The Culinary Institute, for example, has students from 30 countries and routinely “gets applications when we haven’t been on the ground,” Stevens says. The institute identifies new targets by examining differentiating factors—down to individual schools and partnerships within its top-sending nations. “Really looking inward is important,” she says. 

Getting granular also can help international offices address rapidly changing variables in the admissions process (see sidebar below). “It puts the onus on regional knowledge,” says Sandberg. And at a time when international budgets are limited, data can help justify investments in recruiting. “You need to have a case for your team,” says Stevens. “Use data to do that.”

Revisit the Entire Funnel, Including the Campus Experience

Examine attrition at each stage of the recruiting, application, and admissions processes to identify barriers and potential solutions. Some perennial bottlenecks—such as waiting for final transcripts to formally admit students—can’t be eliminated, but targeting communication can improve the process for students, according to Scholten.

Where possible, seek opportunities for personal contact—whether in person or on a one-to-one phone call—at different points in the process. “We’ve become so numb to all the Zoom sessions and online portal checking,” Sandberg says. More personal contact is “easy and cost effective to do, and where we can take a more intensive time to approach students, the more impactful that can be—now more than ever.”

It’s also important to consider ways to improve the student experience after students arrive on campus, tracking key milestones such as first-year retention and program completion. At Loyola, Scholten is working to create a campuswide international council that would bring together representatives of departments that work with international students both during the application process (financial and academic advising) and after they’ve arrived (housing, dining, interfaith services, etc.) to assess and improve services.

“If current international students are feeling supported by the institution, that will help its reputation,” agrees Stevens. “They talk to each other.”

International leaders point to two key areas of emphasis in the student experience. The first, as is the case with domestic students, involves addressing differing levels of learning loss—an issue for both today’s incoming students and those in coming years. “We’re going to see the effects of the pandemic for many years to come,” Scholten says. 

The second involves meeting student expectations that study in the United States will have a meaningful impact on their careers and lives. To this end, UMBC developed a career success initiative for international students. The Center for Global Engagement now has a shared position with the university’s career center, hosts career conferences for international students, and partners closely with local employers to make sure they are aware of opportunities to hire through federal programs like Optional Practical Training (OPT) and Academic Training.

“Students are hyper-focused on outcomes,” Di Maria says. “They view education as an investment, and they want returns.”


Admissions, Through Thick and Thin

Changes in admissions policies, including test-optional admissions and attempts to mitigate the impact of ChatGPT and other artificial intelligence tools on student essays, have contributed to admissions cycles characterized by a portfolio of “many optional and quasi-reliable components, while the required and reliable components are very few,” says Sandberg. 

That puts admissions officials in the position of comparing what Sandberg calls “thick” and “thin” international applications. The thick applications have transcripts from sending schools with strong reputations, an SAT score, and an essay or video statement verified as authentic by the school or a third-party service. By contrast, the thin applications may come from less well-known schools without counselors who can provide context, lack test scores, and offer no way to verify that an essay is the student’s own work.

“When applying this to a single country, that’s challenging but doable,” Sandberg says. “When it’s across the globe, it becomes more challenging.”

International offices must navigate these challenges with an eye towards equity. Requiring students to take tests like the SAT and pay for third-party services to verify essays or video statements creates cost barriers for students with fewer resources. For example, Duke Kunshan is considering working with a third-party service that allows students to submit video essays at no cost to them. “We want to be able to balance being able to assess admissibility and making sure we don’t have barriers to accessibility,” UMBC’s Di Maria agrees. 

Address Equity and Access

Enrollment management professionals should also consider how changes in recruitment strategies may impact ongoing institutional goals to diversify the international student population or improve access for students with fewer resources around the globe. 

“A lot of people are reassessing what diversity means in the context of international admissions and how you achieve those goals with shrinking budgets and resources and increasing costs,” Sandberg says. 

To ensure a diverse balance of international students, Humber College groups and closely tracks prospective students from different countries throughout the funnel, which has different timing for different regions of the world.

“We start with what we want to yield in terms of diversity and then work backwards in terms of the application process chronologically to determine when to make mid-year shifts,” says Ness. “I think of it as opening and closing spigots to let the flows move in, but you’re doing it consciously to know how many are coming in from each pipe.” 

International offices should also break down barriers to accessibility for the growing number of displaced students and those from regions with fewer resources. 

“What are we doing as universities to not only help individuals in refugee camps or the countries hosting them but making sure they can pursue education when they can’t access transcripts or other materials?” Di Maria asks.

These considerations have an impact on the number and mix of international students—and on revenue. But it’s also important to keep student expectations in mind, particularly if the existing strategy leads to classes full of students from one country or few domestic students in any given program. “That’s not what international students are looking for when they come to the United States,” Scholten says.

Reassess Agent and Partner Relationships

One side effect of diversification is that agents, aggregators, and public-private pathways may become more important as institutions look beyond large—and familiar—feeder schools. It’s important to recognize that these partners have faced the same kinds of disruption as the rest of the international education sector in recent years. As a result, some may have changed business models, practices, or their own partners in response to local conditions, making due diligence even more important. 

“Colleges are thinking they’re partnering with company A, but they don’t realize that company has hundreds or thousands of subcontractors,” Di Maria says. 

Carefully examine current and potential partners to make sure you understand each partner’s current business model, whether they employ subcontractors, and how they interact with students and their families. Consider resources such as the American International Recruitment Council and the U.S. Commercial Service’s Gold Keys Service to help vet potential new partners. 

“Ultimately, it’s your institution’s brand out there, and that’s difficult to repair when it’s damaged,” Di Maria says.

Seek Institutional Alignment

While international offices are responsible for creating recruitment plans, they shouldn’t do so on their own and expect institutional support, Di Maria says. “I don’t think plans are successful if they’re just created in a silo,” he says. “If the international office is making the recruitment plan, how is it supported by the institution as a whole?”

At UMBC, an international enrollment steering committee includes deans and provosts from different divisions who help shape the goals of international recruitment. Execution is then supported by subcommittees with more discrete responsibilities, including one group focused on recruitment and another on student success. “Having that model… helped us not operate on the periphery of strategy but as the hub. The institution as a whole is invested in the whole endeavor,” Di Maria says.

In similar fashion, Loyola, which had just begun intentional international recruitment efforts when the pandemic hit, is now working to align that recruitment strategy with the institution’s overall strategic plan, which is being revised to guide the next 5 years. Doing so will demonstrate how international recruitment connects with institutional objectives and help get buy-in elsewhere in the university, Scholten says.

Consistency Amid Change

Even amid the accelerating pace of disruption, institutions must remain consistent with their efforts to recruit international students, their leaders say. For example, the Culinary Institute is committing to continued visits to each market as it adds new ones in the coming years. Noting that it typically takes 3 to 5 years to see return on investment in a new market, Stevens stresses the importance of identifying small wins to justify continued investments to university leadership. 

One strategy, Ness says, is to “sensitize” campus leaders to ongoing trends—and how rapidly conditions can change in one or more critical markets. “These are not static but ongoing conversations,” he says. “It’s being really clear about what could happen, and if it does, here’s our response.”

Remaining steady amid a shifting landscape will require international leaders to set the tone for their staffs and institutions. “Folks are trying to figure out how to muddle through and make a good plan,” says Scholten. “Ultimately, it’s going to be about embracing the uncertainty and commit to whatever you decide to do, do it for a few years, and not stop if there’s a bump on the roller coaster. We’re going to be on a ride for a while.”  •

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