When it comes to international students, leadership matters

Demographic changes have become almost an obsession in American higher education circles. This is not surprising considering the magnitude of the expected downturn in the college-going population in the United States.

The economist Nathan Grawe and others are predicting a decline of up to 15% in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Midwest over the next five years. This decline will not be evenly distributed. Rural colleges and universities will likely see an even steeper decline. While this is true for domestic students, it ignores a critical market segment, namely international students.

According to HolonIQ, international student enrolment will likely increase by eight million students over this decade, with 20% of those students choosing to study in the US.

These students will expect to pay an average annual tuition of US$20,000. This is significantly more than the net tuition at many institutions. Therefore, an aggressive international strategy can substantially offset domestic decline. Beyond the financial considerations, these students contribute to the diversity and cultural ‘worldview’ on campus.

For American students who cannot afford to study abroad, international students provide opportunities for intercultural experiences. They also enrich campus life by participating in everything from student government to intercollegiate athletics.

In fact, athletics can be a major draw for international students. Many of these students want the campus culture and spirit that goes along with college athletics in the US, including the chance to be a champion in a sport that might have had much greater competition in their home country.

The cost of international recruitment

While there are definitely benefits to increasing international recruiting, there are also material considerations. These students will likely require additional services, such as English as a second language, tutoring and other support services beyond those required by the average domestic student.

The cost in money and manpower to recruit international students can affect many institutions; in fact, this can be the greatest challenge of all. Smaller colleges and universities cannot afford in-country recruiting staff. They are forced to rely upon agents who recruit on behalf of the institution.

Using agents can be an uncomfortable arrangement. It is difficult for institutions to vet them properly. Colleges lack the expertise to determine the best-in-practice providers. There is usually little effort to develop and standardise a protocol that determines quality among recruiting agents.

Taken further, it may be difficult to develop the confidence that recruiters are always operating on the institution’s behalf. A slick presentation, statistics that may be misinterpreted or that lack critical meaning or the willingness of enrolment administrators to be swayed by what their competitors do can have a debilitating effect on international recruitment.

This can lead to bad behaviour (for instance, fake transcripts) and reputational risk.

Student retention

There are ways to measure success, but the best indicator is retention. It is essential that international recruits ‘fit’ the campus profile based on which campus matches the culture, financial needs and social expectations they require.

Good international recruitment begins with a heightened understanding of institutional mission, vision and a knowledge of academic and residential life. Students have vastly different experiences on different campuses.

It’s no longer enough to assume that retention works itself out as the student adjusts to campus. Within an academic major, the programmes may differ widely. An experience for an engineer at Lafayette, Lehigh and Carnegie Mellon differs substantially in shaping a successful placement.

Campuses need structure to support international students. As institutions expand their international recruitment, they must create a receptive environment to support them. Once again, there is little in-house expertise.

At the university level, the solution may be more bureaucratic and cumbersome, however well-intentioned. At smaller institutions, the approach may be more ‘Mom and Pop’, often relying heavily on faculty and staff to create a nurturing environment.

Given the demands on in-house mentors, the extra workload can be burdensome for some. For others it may be impossible when judged primarily by other criteria, like teaching and scholarship, in tenure-track positions. An additional downside is location, especially for rural institutions, which presents steep challenges for a good social and cultural fit.

Partnerships for success

This is where leadership matters. Successful institutional leaders recognise that they must partner with third parties to address the financial, social, cultural and internal political challenges of international recruitment.

A campus must first become comfortable with larger numbers of international recruits. That starts by linking the recruitment process to the institution’s strategic plan, building a foundation driven by informed research, a defined, flexible process and thorough follow-through.

Shorelight Education is one example of this creative and innovative new thinking. They partner with a college or university by using data analytics to drive placement and retention at the ‘best fit’ institution for their applicant. To do so, they use a model that is affordable for colleges, especially those with tight budgets.

With a watchful eye on retention, an institution can effectively use a partner like Shorelight to increase net tuition revenue and decrease the financial aid discount rate. Good stewardship can produce a win for all parties.

Brian C Mitchell and W Joseph King are authors of Leadership Matters: Confronting the hard choices facing higher education, just released, and How to Run a College: A practical guide for trustees, faculty, administrators, and policymakers, both from Johns Hopkins University Press. W Joseph King is the past president of Lyon College, as well as the former executive director of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education and of Rice University’s Connexions, United States. Brian C Mitchell is the president and managing principal of Academic Innovators and past president of Bucknell University and Washington and Jefferson College, United States.