International student recruitment via informed choice

Higher education institutions are increasingly expected to make tough, strategic choices to achieve their internationalisation goals in a cost-effective manner. For example, in the field of international student recruitment, institutions are often confronted with questions like: which countries and cities should we prioritise in terms of our recruitment efforts? Which segment of students should we recruit? Which recruitment channels should we use?

However, institutions unfortunately often lack the data or evidence that is necessary to make informed decisions. In a recent survey, chief financial officers of universities acknowledged that their institutions "did not have the data or the information to make informed decisions in key areas".

This lack of data often compels institutions to rely on internal hunches – or projections from past experiences – to help make critical enrolment decisions. Now, while these approaches may work for some, in reality they are expensive and risky tactics for building recruitment strategies, especially when operating within an environment of increasing cost-consciousness.

Understanding international student segments

A new research report from World Education Services Inc, or WES, aimed to address the information gap that exists between better understanding international student segments and developing an effective enrolment strategy for them.

Based on a survey of nearly 3,000 international students, the report examined how international student segments differ by level of education (bachelor and masters degree) and by country of origin, with a specific focus on China, India and Saudi Arabia.

The report identified four segments of international students – Explorers, Highfliers, Strivers and Strugglers – based on two proxies: financial resources and academic preparedness.

Explorers: Students with high financial resources and low academic preparedness were included in this segment. Explorers are more likely than other segments to value the experiential aspects of studying in the United States. The largest proportion of students in this category comes from China (37%) and Saudi Arabia (39%). In contrast, at just 7%, Explorers are the smallest segment among Indian students.

Highfliers: Students with high financial resources and high academic preparedness were included in this segment. Family support is key to the financial independence of Highfliers, as 69% of them indicated family or friends as their main source of funding. The largest proportion of students in this category comes from China, where they comprise 35% of the population.

Strivers: Students with low financial resources and high academic preparedness were included in this segment. Strivers are a traditional segment of students who rely on external sources of funding. When surveyed, nearly 60% of them indicated that they rely on institutional financial aid. More than half of all Indian applicants surveyed were found to be Strivers.

Strugglers: Students with low financial resources and low academic preparedness were included in this segment. Strugglers are more likely to have a need for financial and academic support. Of the four segments, Strugglers are the least interested in learning about the reputation of a school, indicating that they have lower expectations when it comes to quality.

Informing strategic choices

The importance of informed recruitment strategies was also highlighted during the opening session – which I chaired – of the recent 25th annual European Association for International Education, or EAIE, conference, in Istanbul.

Titled "International Recruitment Strategy: What works, what doesn’t?", the conference saw co-presenters from Australia, the UK and the US revealing comparative perspectives on the importance of informed strategic choices in achieving goals of international student recruitment. In her presentation, Carmel Murphy of the University of Melbourne highlighted the positive pay-offs from the strategic choice of investing in university representative offices in key source countries.

Andrew P Disbury from Leeds Metropolitan University illustrated his choice of utilising multiple but coordinated outreach approaches to develop China as an important source country.

Finally, Joseph Hindrawan from the University at Buffalo reviewed his institution’s strategic decision to invest in building its internal recruitment capacity as opposed to employing any third-party recruitment agents.

Adapting to a changing environment

Today, strategies and practices for international student recruitment are evolving in response to an environment of competition, change and cost-consciousness. For example, many recruitment practices designed in the ‘pre-Facebook’ era are still considered effective by some institutions, while student expectations continue to change.

It is evident that institutions must re-evaluate their assumptions and adapt to the changing needs of students. However, institutional leaders continue to be hampered by ever-shrinking ‘bandwidth’ in terms of time and cost to adapt to this new environment.

This is where institutions need to invest in – and deploy – a systematic framework that they can use to regularly research the expectations and experiences students may have as well as how students differ by segments.

Strategy is about making choices – and the more informed these choices are, the higher the likelihood of delivering results, in terms of both cost and impact.

Forward-looking institutions need to stop relying on hunches and move towards informed strategic choices. As Michael Porter asserts in Harvard Business Review: "Strategy renders choices about what not to do as important as choices about what to do."

Dr Rahul Choudaha is the co-founder and CEO at DrEducation and 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 and @DrEducationBlog.