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Recruiters need to understand student groups better

Are debates about recruitment agents and their implications built on a mismatch between what students really want and what institutions believe students want? Are international recruitment practices falling behind changes in student decision-making behaviour as different student segments seek different types of information?

These are some of the underlying drivers of a recent research report entitled Not All International Students are the Same: Understanding segments, mapping behaviour, published by World Education Services (WES), a New York-based non-profit involved in international education research and evaluation.

The publication presents findings from a survey of nearly 1,600 prospective international students from 115 countries in the process of applying to US colleges and universities.

The report reveals that international students seeking to attend an American higher education institution differ according to their academic preparedness and financial resources, and that these differences impact on their preferences and information-seeking behaviour when they are considering institutions.

International student segments

The study segmented the international student respondents along two primary lines: academic preparedness and financial resources.

We used English proficiency levels and related criteria to assess survey respondents as having either high or low levels of academic preparedness. Similarly, we distinguished individuals with high and low financial resources based on whether they expected institutional financial aid to be available to them.

This resulted in four primary segments of international students: Strivers [30%], Strugglers [21%], Explorers [25%] and Highfliers [24%].

Strivers are the largest segment of the overall US-bound international student population. Almost two-thirds of this segment (63%) was employed full-time or part time during the application process, presumably because they need to support themselves.

Among all segments, they are the most likely to select information on financial aid opportunities among their top three information needs (45%). Financial challenges do not deter these highly prepared students from pursuing their academic dreams: 67% plan to attend a top-tier US school.

Strugglers make up about one-fifth of all US-bound international students. They have limited financial resources and need additional preparation to do well in an American classroom: 40% of them plan to take an ESL programme in the future.

They are also relatively less selective about where they obtain their education. Only 33% of them selected information about a school’s reputation among their top three information needs. Strugglers were found to be particularly likely to use agent services such as essay, resumé or personal statement editing.

Seventy-two per cent of Strugglers had their agents edit their written material (compared to 45% of Highfliers) and 63% prepared for admissions interviews with the help of agents (only 34% of Strivers did so).

Explorers are very keen on studying abroad, but their interests are not exclusively academic. Compared to the other segments, they are the most interested in the personal and experiential aspects of studying in the United States, with 19% of this segment reporting that information on student services was in their top three information needs during the college search.

Explorers are not fully prepared to tackle the academic challenges of the best American institutions and are the most likely to plan to attend a second-tier institution (33%). They are also the most likely to use the services of an education agent (24%).

Highfliers are academically well prepared students who have the means to attend more expensive programmes without expecting any financial aid from the institution. They seek a US higher education primarily for its prestige: almost half of the respondents in this segment (46%) reported that the school’s reputation is among their top three information needs.

Highfliers, along with Explorers, form the emerging segment driven by the expanding wealthy classes in countries like China and India.

The trade-offs and informed choices

Segment-based information highlights the potential trade-offs in international recruitment.

Strivers are academically highly prepared, but they may not enrol at an institution unless they receive financial aid. Explorers and Highfliers don’t expect institutional financial aid, a boon for financially exigent colleges and universities.

However, Highfliers are attracted to a narrow circle of top-ranked institutions, which makes it difficult for lower-ranked institutions to compete for them. Explorers and Strugglers are less selective about their college choice, but they require additional academic assistance both during admissions and once on campus.

Institutions must do a realistic stocktaking of their ability to meet the diverse needs of their international students, be it a need for financial aid or for academic assistance. A mismatch between institutional capacities and international student needs can harm the financial and reputational well-being of the institution.

By gaining a deeper understanding of how students differ in profile and behaviour, higher education institutions can become more effective in their resource allocation and recruitment efforts.

Some of the key conclusions of the report are:

  • International students are not the same. International recruitment targets need to be aligned with the institution’s mission and based on a realistic account of its capacity to meet the needs of target student segments.
  • Different students use different information channels. Debates about the use of agents and social media should be grounded in an understanding of which student segments use these channels and whether the institution is interested in recruiting those segments.
  • Different students need different information. Institutions can meet the information needs of international students more appropriately if they map recruitment channels with the information-seeking behaviour of their target student segments.


Dr Rahul Choudaha is the co-founder and CEO at DrEducation and http://interEDGE.org. He researches, speaks, writes, and consults on international student trends and its implications for institutional strategies and student success. Choudaha holds a doctorate in higher education from the University of Denver. He is reachable at info@DrEducation.com and @DrEducationBlog.

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