Published on 2016/06/24
The EvoLLLution | Building and Maintaining a Global Brand: Higher Education and International Enrollments
Success in the international market can reap major rewards for colleges and universities, but growing a strong global reputation and safeguarding enrollments from fluctuations is a significant challenge.

More and more higher education institutions are looking at the international market as a solution to some of the challenges that have been making headlines of late. After all, these students typically pay more in enrollments and fees while creating an enviable brand distinction for the institution itself. However, building and maintaining success in the global market requires focus and investment from the institution. In this interview, Sara Kurtz Allaei shares her thoughts on what it takes to stand out in the international marketplace and reflects on how intensive English language programs can help.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it so important for colleges and universities today to be successful in attracting international students?

Sara Kurtz Allaei (SKA): Institutions have several motivations for attracting international students to their campuses. First and foremost, the ability to attract international students typically demonstrates international recognition of the programs offered and is necessary to demonstrate standing as a world-class institution. Quality of academic programs is a primary factor that international students consider in selecting a destination institution. Thus, growth in international student enrollment—along with successful employment outcomes for graduates—serves as a validation of that institution’s academic programs.

Second, in light of pervasive globalization, institutions need a variety of strategies and programs to prepare their graduates for job markets that increasingly demand globally competent graduates. Study abroad programs are typically emphasized as the most effective way to encourage the development of intercultural competence, but few institutions have succeeded in facilitating an experience abroad for a majority of their graduates. Thus, increasingly, institutions look to the presence of international students on campus as a means to enhance campus diversity and generate opportunities for domestic students to learn about the world.

I would be remiss if I did not also mention the opportunity to increase revenues through the enrollment of non-resident or full fee-paying international students as a motivator for institutions that seek to grow their international student enrollment. If this is the sole motivator, however, the institution is likely to miss out on many of the benefits associated with having international students on campus.

Evo: What are the most significant challenges postsecondary leaders face in attracting international students?

SKA: As nations recognize the role that international students can play in advancing the profile of their higher education institutions, and adopt national strategies to attract international students to their own postsecondary programs, competition for globally mobile students has become more intense. With only a few source countries—most notably China, India, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia—generating the vast majority of international student enrollments, many institutions enroll more than 50 percent of their international students from a single country and thus are vulnerable to country-specific downturns in enrollment. When international enrollment managers turn to secondary markets to diversify their enrollments, the competition becomes particularly intense.

The tension between maintaining secure borders and welcoming international students presents challenges for maintaining international enrollments. In the post-9/11 era in the United States, males from predominantly Muslim countries were called up to be interviewed by security personnel, while stricter visa interview requirements were implemented worldwide. The result was a decline in international student enrollment across the United States as these regulatory actions overshadowed messaging from institutions seeking to convey that international students were, indeed, welcome on campus. Similarly, the rhetoric of the current U.S. presidential election—with anti-immigrant sentiments repeated and retweeted throughout the world—once again threatens the standing of the U.S. as the top destination for international students worldwide.

Evo: To your mind, what are the most important factors an institution must have in place to support international enrollment growth?

SKA: Institutions need to invest in infrastructure support commensurate with their international enrollment goals, while establishing funding mechanisms that expand to maintain adequate levels of support services as enrollment grows. A comprehensive international enrollment growth plan brings together many critical components, including:

  • Mechanisms to promote the institution and attract students to enroll;
  • An informed international admission policy that considers secondary school performance, English language proficiency, and other mechanisms typically used by the institution to make admission decisions;
  • A strategy for evaluating academic credentials to ensure that the institution’s academic standards are being met;
  • Requisite government approvals to sponsor students for student visas, with staff trained to assist both the institution and students in meeting their respective reporting and compliance responsibilities;
  • Appropriate options for student housing;
  • Programs that support the acclimation of new students to the campus and surrounding community, including English language support; and
  • Programs that prepare faculty and staff throughout the institution to address intercultural challenges presented by a growing international student population.

Just as an institution’s domestic enrollment strategy must be continuously refreshed, so must the international enrollment strategy. Once key components have been put into place, the institution should also attend to diversification of markets to reduce dependency on enrollment from only one or two countries, additional programs and mechanisms to support international success, lifetime engagement of its international alumni, and other opportunities for continuous improvement of programs and services.

Evo: How important are intensive English language programs to helping universities enroll greater numbers of international learners?

SKA: Intensive English language programs frequently play a central role in international enrollment management planning as a mechanism to jump-start an institution’s international enrollment growth plan while generating revenue to benefit associated institutional programs. In truth, the cost of establishing such programs is quite high, and the importance of an intensive English language program to an institution’s international enrollment strategy depends on a number of factors. Highly selective institutions that attract large numbers of well qualified applicants with high English proficiency would not logically turn to English language programs as a core enrollment growth strategy. For other institutional types, however, offering well coordinated options for students to progress from English language study into their academic programs may be an essential strategy for tapping into the market of academically well qualified students who simply need to develop their English language proficiency to be ready to study in an English immersion environment.

Despite the obvious benefits of an intensive English language program in such contexts, the start-up costs for new programs are substantial, requiring multi-year personnel, recruitment, and space resource commitments before the enterprise can be expected to yield on the investment. “At least three years” is the typical timeframe projected by international enrollment experts to build a program. Even after enrollments have reached target levels, the institution should anticipate that enrollments will fluctuate widely. For example, during Summer 2016, intensive English programs that have relied on students from Saudi Arabia as a primary enrollment driver are reporting record enrollment lows due to recent adjustments to the Saudi government-administered scholarship program.

Given these uncertainties, some institutions prefer to adopt alternative strategies for tapping into the large market of English language learners. Institutional pathway programs, which typically offer academic admission contingent on successfully completing a concurrent English language support program during the first year of study, appeal to students who may be on the verge of exiting intensive English programs but are not quite ready for full-time academic study. Other institutions are turning to external providers that assume the costs and associated risks of launching a new intensive English and/or pathway program, but require significant effort to integrate into the institutional fabric.

Considering the large numbers of English language learners worldwide who seek access to higher education opportunities, the institutional response to this opportunity may well be the most important decision to be made in shaping the institution’s international enrollment growth strategy.

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Key Takeaways

  • Intensive English Language Programs can help institutions that don’t already attract high numbers of international students compete globally, but the cost of taking this approach is high.
  • High international enrollments can be a proxy to communicate an institution’s commitment to academic program quality.
  • By developing rich international enrollment strategies, institutions can diversify their students and protect themselves from enrollment shifts in individual countries.