Knowing who the international student is will help with recruitment

More than 700,000 foreign students are enrolled in American higher education institutions, with 160,000 from China and more than 100,000 from India – the two top source countries that, together with South Korea, comprise 46% of the total.

A new report released this week by the non-profit World Education Services (WES) in New York offers advice to US higher education institutions about recruiting foreign students, noting – in case it wasn’t already obvious – that they comprise “a highly heterogeneous group”.

But the point was that differences in academic preparedness and financial resources translate into differences in the information students look for and where they look for it during their search for the right 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,” says Dr Rahul Choudaha, director of WES Research & Advisory Services and the report’s author. (See also his World Blog this week.)

“With that in mind, we have sought to segment prospective US-bound international students by mapping their profiles according to differences in their information-seeking behaviour.”

The report is based on responses to a WES survey by nearly 1,600 prospective international students who lived outside the US and had plans to study in America were surveyed.

The team that analysed the responses concluded that overseas students could be divided into four broad classes, based on their academic preparedness and financial resources. These were:
  • • Strivers: who had high academic preparedness but low financial resources and who comprised 30% of all respondents.
  • • Strugglers: who had low academic preparedness and low financial resources and who made up 20% of the total.
  • • Explorers: who had low academic preparedness but high financial resources and who comprised 25% of the respondents.
  • • Highfliers: who had had both high academic preparedness and high financial resources and who made up 24%.
The report notes that students from different countries use different information sources when checking possible countries in which to study. In India, 88% of social media users visited US-based social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter on a daily or weekly basis, compared with only 22% of Chinese social media users.

Those who used agents tended to be affluent although 62% were not fully prepared “to tackle the academic challenges of a US education”, the report says.

More than half the Chinese students and 46% of those in India rated post-graduation career prospects among their top three college-search information needs, while 27% of all Middle Eastern respondents ranked information about student services, including campus safety, among their top three information needs.

The report says understanding such differences in international student profiles can help higher education institutions prioritise their outreach strategies: “For example, our study suggests that the use of recruitment agents might not be as widespread as previous research has indicated, with only about one-sixth of all respondents reported to have used an agent.”

Debates about the use of agents and social media should be based on an understanding of which groups of students use the different channels and whether institutions are interested in recruiting particular ones.

It says that while the emphasis of international student recruitment has shifted over time, the core motivations still centre on “attracting talent, creating a more diverse student body and, perhaps most importantly today, the infusion of additional tuition revenue”.

The report says the ongoing impact of the economic crisis and declining funds for higher education have forced increasing numbers of US colleges and universities to recruit more international students “in a shorter timeframe and within tighter budget constraints”.

A previous WES research report predicted a healthy growth in foreign student enrolments while pointing out that institutions have to compete hard for talented and self-funded students.

The financial crisis has also caused institutions to focus their efforts at the undergraduate level, because these students are not after scholarships and therefore pay more out of pocket than international graduates. The report says four-year undergraduate courses also create a longer revenue stream per student than the typical graduate-level programme.

It points to the University of California, Berkeley, as an example of an institution that increased its intake of international undergraduates by 50% between 2010 and 2011, bringing in estimated additional revenue of US$18 million over four years.

“In the case of graduate recruitment, declining public funds are making it harder for institutions to offer financial assistance to top prospects in research programmes while affluent international students are able to finance graduate studies irrespective of financial aid,” the report says.

“The challenge for higher education institutions in the US, therefore, is to define target segments of prospective international students more precisely, in order to optimise resource allocation and successfully achieve enrolment goals in terms of diversity and quality of the student body.”