Four Challenges to Attracting and Retaining High-Quality International StudentsAlessia Lefebure | Director of the Alliance Program, Columbia University
Businesses have long been alone in their concern for the development of talent in prospective employees. In the view of most companies, the quality of their hires remains today the key of success and economic performances. In today’s truly global labor market where companies can move from country to country and continent to continent, the supply of talented workers has become an increasingly powerful selling point for countries and regions that have based their economic development on their capacity to attract foreign investors. Talent is mainly grown through education systems and, therefore, universities have become a central element of this strategy.
Universities compete with each other for the highest funding, for the best faculty members, and they now compete for the most qualified students. And thanks to the advent of global rankings, their playing field is no longer regional or even statewide—it’s international.
This highly competitive environment has led universities to invest big in brand development and marketing, to look at digital technology and big data as tools for revisiting their business models, and also to rethink the whole campus and customer experience. The global competition keeps university leaders busy with concerns around the number of applications, the level of selectivity and all of what can allow them to claim that they attract the best students.
However, despite the impetus for this competition, institutions are still putting very little effort into considering the demand for talent. In 2016, what is a “highly qualified student?” And, more important, how does a university meet the needs and aspirations of these highly qualified students?
Much has been written on the failure of traditional indicators such as standardized test or grades, and many alternative methods have been introduced to identify the students with the greatest potential for success.
Yet, once you have identified them, why would they choose you? Brand notoriety and rankings do not tell the whole story as universities are facing new challenges.
To my mind, there are four key challenges to attracting and retaining highly qualified international students:
1. Experience Versus Outcome
We are witnessing an increasing disconnect between the story institutions tell and the needs of today’s students.
For the most part, institutional communication highlights the short-term, on-campus experience prospective students can expect to enjoy. However, the need for the student to learn skills, knowledge and behavior that can grow over time tends to be left behind. Universities don’t just provide students with a short-term experience. They also provide them tools for the future, and is it crucial that the learning on campus has a long life cycle.
The discourse of university admissions’ officers needs to shift from the present experience to the acquisition of assets for tomorrow, for this is what the most qualified students are aiming at.
2. Focusing on “Me” Rather Than “Us”
Universities attract students by gratifying and accommodating their individual preferences and tastes. Students have plenty of choices on campus, from courses to housing to extracurricular activities to study abroad to foreign languages to majors. They have the opportunity to act as kings and define their own path.
However, once in the professional world, students become suddenly parts of organizations and, especially at the entry level, they are simple and ordinary members. In the professional world, they have to take into account—and are impacted by—others’ actions, strategies, needs and resources. Are universities sufficiently preparing them for this?
3. Preparation for a Dynamic Career
Our societies are facing challenges that have no simple solutions, problems that require a large spectrum of academic knowledge, immense wisdom and tolerance. Training students to handle complexity is a difficult task that could be addressed through a better use of diversity.
In many countries, universities have listed developing ethnic, racial, sexual, religious, socioeconomic or age diversity among their top priorities, but the main goal is to guarantee access and equal opportunities to underrepresented demographics. In spite of the good intentions and beyond the official discourse, once these diverse individuals are admitted, little has been done to bring their diversity into the daily learning experience. In most cases, diversity could be seen as a dormant resource. However, it is through diversity that students learn the complexity of the decision-making process and the necessity to consider the variety of conflicting perspectives and opinions. Can universities be the venue for opening the channels of communication, facilitating respect and acceptance of deep and profound differences in values and views?
High-potential students are those who will be capable of transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary. When choosing their university, they want to make sure that they find a place that not only trains responsible leaders. They are also looking for, above all else, a place that nurtures visionaries and leaders that can anticipate challenges, push boundaries and are ready to offer the creative restlessness needed to imagine a different world.
Author Perspective: Administrator