Need to prepare for the next wave of foreign students

A recent commentary in University World News highlighted issues facing US higher education in sustaining international student growth rates. Although some of the concerns raised are relevant, they mask the latent strength in the scale, diversity and capacity of the American higher education system to become a more attractive player in the international student mobility arena.

The concept of international student recruitment in the US is a relatively new development. It gained traction in response to post-recession budget cuts, primarily in public higher education institutions.

The external environment prompted institutions to start recruiting international students, but the internal capacities and resources of many were ill prepared for this sudden shift towards a more proactive recruitment model.

Against a backdrop of higher expectations for international enrolment and declining budget support, this lack of internal capacity triggered the adoption of quick turnaround recruitment approaches. For example, several institutions started experimenting with commission-based recruitment agents, anticipating lower upfront costs.

These quick-fix practices, however, have created gaps in institutions’ ability to manage the qualitative risks associated with the use of agents and provide adequate support services to meet international student needs.

Research universities

Agent-using institutions are not necessarily the institutions that drive most of the international student enrolment growth. In fact, less than 3% of American institutions classified as "Research Universities (very high research activity-RU/VH)" by the Carnegie Classification are primarily responsible for overall expansion.

These 108 research universities increased their share of total international student enrolment in the US from 37.7% to 42.5% between 2010-11 and 2011-12, according to the Institute of International Education’s Open Doors survey. International student enrolment at these universities rose by 38%, compared to 23% for all institutions.

Until recently, most research universities did not actively ‘recruit’ as they could rely on strong word-of-mouth and institutional reputation. But with two-thirds of them being public institutions, they too could not shield themselves from the effects of the recent financial crisis.

This provoked several public institutions to begin recruiting international students, and this is evident from the much higher enrolment growth at some of the large public universities. For instance, Purdue University and the University of Washington each enrolled almost 3,000 more international students in the autumn of 2012 than the autumn of 2008.

When we look closely at the details of that expansion, we can see that research universities have witnessed a larger expansion in the enrolment of undergraduates than graduates. For example, at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA), new international undergraduate student enrolment grew seven-fold – from 142 to 1,012 – between 2008 and 2012.

This is one example of many that show how research universities are attracting more and more undergraduate-level international students – a new phenomenon for these institutions known for their research excellence, an excellence that traditionally drew graduate students.

This trend towards an increasing undergraduate focus is driven by a fall in the funding available at graduate level and a higher revenue potential for self-funded undergraduate students. This pattern prevails across all institution types as international student growth is driven by undergraduate students.

In 2011-12, 24,793 more undergraduate international students than in the previous year were enrolled in US higher education institutions as compared to 3,856 at graduate level. Undergraduate-level students now make up 78% of growth in total international student enrolment.

Thus, it is undeniable that recent growth in international student enrolment in the US is driven by an overarching trend: large public research universities reaching out to increasing numbers of undergraduate-level students.

Next phase of growth

In order to capitalise on the potential for the next phase of enrolment growth, US institutions must continue to build their internal capacity to actively recruit international students. This growth may be risky if institutions rely on quick-fix recruitment practices rather than long-term capacity building models.

In addition to insufficient institutional preparedness for the changing environment of international student recruitment, lack of a coherent national policy has also hindered the US from attracting more international students.

However, recent proactive measures taken by US government agencies, such as providing information through Study in the States, will nationally brand American higher education for international students. In addition, recent policy initiatives like offering green cards to STEM graduates will make the US even more attractive to international talent.

The US is a recent entrant in the world of international student recruitment and will remain highly attractive to international students from all parts of the world. The central challenge for the US is not its unsustainability, but rather building the capacity and competencies required to recruit international students while maintaining high standards.

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.