By: Luke Sikorski, MA, Assistant Recruitment Director, INTO University Partnerships; Matthew Sacco, MA, Director of International Enrollment Partnerships, George Mason University; and Krista Kennedy, MS, Sponsored Student Program Administrator, Portland State University

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Engaging with sponsoring organizations is a great way to diversify an international student recruitment plan.  This two-part resource will assist recruitment practitioners in building a strategy for diversifying and increasing their engagement with sponsoring organizations.  In this first part, we discuss positioning your institution to find the best matches for sponsoring organizations, show how data can inform your sponsored student recruitment strategy, explain the variety of regional opportunities, and provide resources to get started with building a plan.  Part two will be available in Spring 2021.

Finding a Starting Point

A sponsoring organization is a government body or private corporations that provide full or partial scholarships to students to study outside of their home country.  Oftentimes the sponsoring organization will require that invoices are sent directly to them and ask for additional academic update reports throughout the student’s academic career. If you already have sponsored students on your campus, then you are aware of the benefits of working with sponsoring organizations as well as the additional systems that need to be set up in order to create a seamless process for the student and the sponsor.  

There are several additional components integral to building a sponsored student recruitment plan to augment an institution’s international recruiting efforts.  It is important to consider the ranking of the institution and specific programs, whether the institution has the ability for cost-share, and if there are unique programs of study that will be attractive to specific government and industry needs of the sending country.  Instead of casting a wide net for all sponsor programs, look at the specific value the institution can bring to the sponsor and build a relationship from that point.  

Historically, the largest group of sponsoring organizations are in the Gulf region of the Middle East.  Students receive scholarships to cover the cost of studying outside their home country in areas of study that the government has deemed necessary for economic growth.  In recent years, many of these programs have shifted toward relying on university rankings for approved programs.  As each of these programs has different criteria for determining an approved school it is worthwhile to review each program carefully.  The Department of State’s EducationUSA network of Regional Education Advising Coordinators (REACs) are a good resource for obtaining a list of the current scholarship programs and their institutional criteria.  

While the ranking of an institution or major might be a factor in determining if your institution can receive students from a specific program, it isn’t the only factor.  Building a relationship with the sponsoring organization can also lead to program approval.  By building a relationship with a specific organization, you will be able to explain how your institution can partner with them to create a successful academic environment for their students.  Highlighting a unique major that the sponsor has deemed a need, sharing industry partners surrounding your university that are popular places for international student internships, or showcasing alumni who were from the sponsor’s home country are all great examples of how to build a relationship with a sponsor and work toward school approval.

Not all sponsoring organizations are able to offer 100% scholarships for their students.  If your institution has the ability to offer cost-share, this is also a method of expanding the number of sponsored students at your campus.  As an example, the Fulbright Foreign Student program and the Tibet Fund, which are primarily for graduate students, typically ask for some level of cost-share from the university in order to secure placements.  Another example at the undergraduate level would be non-degree programs through Global UGrad or HEI-Egypt Initiative. These are just a few examples of sponsorship opportunities that typically ask for cost-share. If your institution is able to offer some type of cost-share, it will open the opportunity for further partnerships.

The ideas above are meant to help guide you in determining how to position your institution to receive sponsored students.  In the next sections, we will explore how the use of data can be used to target the sponsored student populations best suited for your institution.

Using Macro-Level Data

Macro level data is important to have a broad understanding of the market trends. The 2020 NAFSA Sponsored Program Administration MIG Survey indicated that 79% of respondents saw slight or significant declines in their sponsored student population. Half of respondents also indicated they do not allocate a specific budget for sponsored student recruitment. The Gulf region of the Middle East, despite enrollment trends, still accounts for the largest portion of sponsored students to the United States. According to EducationUSA’s Global Guide 2020, there was an 11.2% drop in enrollments year over year. However, Saudi Arabia still accounts for 3% of total international students studying in the U.S., the vast majority of them being government sponsored. It is important to note that from 2018/2019, there was 2.8% growth out of Latin America and only small declines from countries like Thailand and Turkey, both markets where sponsored student recruitment opportunities exist. With these trends in mind, it can build a case to maintain relationships in the Gulf while exploring opportunities in growing markets. Below is a high-level view of regional trends.

Middle East

Despite enrollment declines from key sponsored markets (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, UAE, Oman), these markets still represent a stable flow of students to the United States. Student demand for postsecondary education far exceeds local capacity and the region’s population has a significant percentage of college-aged men and women.

Specific to Saudi Arabia, funding for specific majors is being shifted to support key areas of economic growth as part of Vision 2030. New scholarship programs have been announced by the Ministry of Culture as well as the “Path of Excellence for Scholarships” with 32 specializations.

Top Majors

  • STEM (highest priority)
  • New Focus (Saudi Arabia-specific): Tourism, Archeology, Design, Film, Visual Arts, Culinary Arts

Latin America

The 2018/2019 Open Doors data reflect a 2.8% growth from the region. Key sending countries, such as Panama, Colombia, and Ecuador, offer sponsor opportunities both at the graduate and undergraduate level. Although programs in the Middle East still have larger sending populations, programs in Latin America, such as IFARHU and SENACYT in Panama, represent a stable opportunity given their importance at the political and economic development level. SENESCYT in Ecuador, similar to the program in Panama, also offers opportunities. Both are in the form of private loans mixed with scholarships based on economic need.

Top Majors

  • Business and Entrepreneurship
  • STEM
  • social sciences

Other Countries

Other governments that have sponsored scholarship programs such as Turkey and Thailand, still offer stable sponsor programs despite enrollment declines of 3.4% and 1% respectfully according to the latest Open Doors data. Through the Ministry of National Education, Turkey offers graduate scholarship opportunities focused on a variety of fields, with the largest being Agriculture. Thailand has a decentralized approach, with a variety of scholarships being funded through the Office of Civil Service Commission (OCSC) and offered to a variety of universities and government ministries.

Top Majors

  • Agriculture
  • Nursing/Health Sciences
  • Business/Finance
  • Engineering

Utilizing Data to Formulate Your Own Strategy

Once you have a broad understanding of the opportunities available in the sponsored student market, you can begin to think about where your institution sits within the framework of sponsoring organization needs. Begin examining internally by asking the following questions about your institution:

  • Where do you have sponsored students from currently? If you don’t have sponsored students, do you have students from a country that does have a scholarship program?
  • What are your top-ranked programs? What key sponsored markets have these specific programs in-demand?
  • Are these key programs on the necessary approval lists (if necessary)?
  • Do you have the necessary support in place to handle an increase of applications and flexibility required by many sponsored programs?

After assessing your responses, one approach might be to pick one or two key markets for one specific program at your institution and focus on building relationships with sponsors in those markets. The next section includes approaches to working with different types of sponsors. As the attached timeline shows, the ideal time to begin making contact with the sponsor is at least 6-9 months before the term when students will start.

Regional Opportunities

As noted above, historically a majority of sponsor organizations have been in the Gulf region of the Middle East.  While it is smart to include these organizations into your institution’s sponsored student enrollment strategy (such as the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission, which is likely the most well-known), there are several reasons why an institution should also consider other regions and the sponsor organizations within them.  

  • Decreased funding for Gulf scholarship programs in recent years (Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, for example)
  • Ranking requirements for your institution to be considered eligible to receive students for certain Gulf state programs.
  • Diversifying your international student population through sponsored student enrollment in key regions or recruitment markets that your institution wishes to prioritize
  • Cost of attendance is typically the biggest hurdle for many international students studying in the U.S. If your institution wishes to recruit more students from Latin America, perhaps focus on sponsors such as Colfuturo for Chilean students or COLCIENCIAS partnerships for Colombian students. This can be a way to enroll students from target countries that may not otherwise have been able to afford attending your institution.

Outside of the Gulf states, other sponsorship programs may seem small in comparison. However, focusing on smaller (or niche) market opportunities is a good strategy to not only diversify your populations, but also to be more competitive against other institutions seeking sponsored students. It can also help to build brand awareness for your institution in a region where you have little to no previous engagement.

These smaller sponsor organizations are spread across the globe. You can find many in Latin America and a growing number across Asia, particularly Central and Southeast Asia. For example, Indonesia is considered to be an emerging market that will become a large sending country of international students to the U.S. in the coming years and it has several sponsorship programs. Working with those sponsors and receiving Indonesian students before the market is more developed could result in better positioning of your institution, increased brand recognition, and greater experience in an important market to help guide your future recruitment strategy.

Defining Types of Sponsors

Sponsors can come in many forms. The most common types are distinguished below, but they share some core commonalities. Sponsors are usually the primary funders, they establish a vision or mission for the program which sets educational or training expectations (at times including close management of the students), and they usually select students through a competitive process using a set of criteria.

Foreign Government Agencies: Foreign state sponsors attract their citizens for study abroad (typically full degree programs) at both the undergraduate and graduate levels with the expectation or explicit requirement that the students return to the home country to better the knowledge base, further develop a skilled workforce, and overall as an investment to improve the domestic and international affairs of the state.

Private Companies/Agencies: Outside of a philanthropic arm of their business, sponsoring study abroad students as a business has a primary goal of improving their financial bottom line. Companies will fund the knowledge and skill building for individuals in order to develop their own sought-after workforce for both domestic and international markets. Private agencies may be developing these talented individuals for specific companies or industries.

Foundations: With altruism and philanthropy at the core of this funding, these sponsors fund students to lift up specific communities or society as a whole through investing in education, often with a goal of supporting future leaders or solving the global challenges of our time.

Non-profit or Programming Organizations: Often with similar guiding principles as Foundation sponsors, these organizations may be equally, or even more, driven by a specific mission. Public diplomacy through educational exchanges, cross-cultural understanding and building bridges with other countries across all aspects of society are typically features of such missions. Programming organizations are those that may receive large amounts of their own funding from others (such as the Department of State or private foundations) to implement and manage such exchanges or international visitor programs

Higher Education Institutions (Foreign HEIs): Whether through a formal partnership between a U.S. and foreign HEI, or simply as a function of the mission and strategy of a foreign HEI, students at all levels may receive full or partial funding to study abroad. Historically, this has been most typically seen at the graduate level and with doctoral programs, but may take other forms, such as faculty development training, etc.


EducationUSA Global Guide 2020
2020 Sponsor Student MIG Survey
2019 Open Doors Report
Agents welcome new cultural scholarship program in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia launches the “Path of Excellence for Scholarships” with 32 specializations

Illustrative Sponsor List (by region)


South and Southeast Asia

Central and East Asia

Abdul Rahman Alsudairy Foundation

Commissionerate Social Welfare (Maharashtra)

Bolashak Scholarship- Kazakhstan

Abu Dhabi Education Council

Embassy of Vietnam

China Scholarship Council

Abu Dhabi Investment Authority

Government of Ache Indonesia

Japan Study Abroad Foundation (JSAF)

Abu Dhabi Police Division

Government of Karnataka

Japan-IMF Scholarship

Abu Dhabi Military Attaché

Government of Equatorial Guinea

JX Nippon

Ajyal Talent Management

Indonesian Agency for Agri. Research & Development

Korea National Health Insurance Service

Bahrain Ministry of Interior

Majlis Amanah Rakyat (MARA)

Korean Government Scholarship Program

Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission (SACM)

Malaysia Exxon Mobil

Ministry of Education & Science, Republic of Tatarstan

Egyptian Cultural and Education Bureau

Malaysia JPA

Mongolia Ministry of Education and Science

Embassy of Bahrain

Malaysia Petronas

Republic of Korea Army

Embassy of the State of Kuwait

Malaysian Ministry of Admin. Development, Labor & Social Affairs

Turkmenistan - Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs

Embassy of the State of Qatar

Ministry of Education Thailand

Turkmenistan Ministry of Industry

Embassy of the Sultanate of Oman

Ministry of Finance Indonesia


Embassy of the United Arab Emirates

Myanmar Ministry of Education

North America

Hadhramout Student Fund LLC

Papua Government

Canadian Bureau of International Education (CBIE)

Higher Education Institute Qatar

Special Autonomy Bureau (Indonesia)

Department of National Defense- Canada

Iraq Ministry of Higher Ed. and Scientific Research (MOHESR)

Vietnam International Education Development


Iraq-Kurdistan regional government


Norway Ministry of Educ

Iraqi Embassy/ Cultural Office

South and Central America

Kosovo Transformational Leadership Program

Iraqi Higher Committee for Education Develpment (HCED)

Brazilian Scientific Mobility Program (BSMP)


King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST)

Todos los Santos- Chile

Sub-Saharan Africa

Kuwait Cultural Division

Chile Agricultural Huertos Ucuquer

East African Development Bank

Libya Cultural Attache


Botswana Development Training Program

Libyan Military Office

Chile's English Opens Doors scholarship

Botswana Military Attache

Libyan Minister of Higher Education

Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development


Libyan North American Scholarship Program (LNASP)



Omani Ministry of Higher Education

Colombia Human Resources Development Board


Qatar Airways

Commonwealth of Dominica


Qatar Aspire Zone Foundation

Pan American Health Org


Qatar Petroleum

Mexican National Council for Science and Technology Scholarship


Saudi Aramco

Ministry of Education of Brazil Fulbright Scholar/Student Program


UAE Police Attaché

Programa Formacion de Capital Humano Avanzado (CONICYT)


United Arab Emirates Military Attache



Sample Listing of Programming Organizations

  • Africa-America Institute (AAI)
  • America-Mideast Educational and Training Services (AMIDEAST)
  • American Councils (ACTR-ACCELS)
  • The Asia Foundation (TAF)
  • The Council for International Exchange of Scholars (CIES)
  • The East-West Center
  • FHI 360
  • Institute of International Education (IIE)
  • International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX)
  • Latin American Scholarship
  • Program of American Universities (LASPAU)
  • World Learning