Competing in the International Marketplace: Opportunities and Challenges for Community Colleges
Green River College has been recruiting and serving international students since 1988. The college now hosts about 1,700 international students from over 60 countries, ranking it among the top ten two-year institutions in international enrollment in the US. The intention was to build a good international program, not necessarily a big one. Getting both has been a pleasant surprise.
The Community College Challenge
Green River started its international program for the same reasons most institutions do—diversification and revenue. The initial challenges, however, were considerable. Few abroad knew what a community college was. If it’s not a university, what is it? The concept of 2+2 transfer sounded suspect, kind of back door. Moreover, Auburn—where the college is based—is a blue-collar suburb of Seattle that is poorly served by public transport and offers few amenities of interest to international students. University of Washington, the state’s flagship university, is very hard to get into. None of this looked very promising.
Despite these disadvantages, Green River offered several things that we thought international students (and their parents) might be interested in:
- “2+2” transfer to US universities
- Low cost relative to universities
- Nonselective admission
- Special support services for international services
- Technical job-related programs
Of all these attributes, university transfer proved to be of greatest interest, if we could convince people that it was real. A major task became maximizing the number and quality of US universities to which our international students could transfer. It took our advisors years of work to reverse engineer successful admissions pathways to ranked universities, using the experience of successful transfers as blueprints. Later, we established guaranteed admission pathways with two dozen universities, and attracted over 100 institutions such as Columbia, Johns Hopkins and UC Berkeley to visit our campus and recruit our students. It worked. Green River students have now transferred to scores of ranked universities such as Washington, all of the UC branches, Columbia, Michigan, USC, Wisconsin and Cornell, as well as many schools with specialty programs such as Embry Riddle Aviation University, Pratt Institute (art/design) and UNLV (hotel management). We “sell” the universities to which our students transfer, and secondarily sell Green River as the pathway to those universities.
Focus on Students
We realized from the beginning that taking exquisite care of our students had to be the cornerstone of our international program. The college tag line “Think student, then decide” would be central to our effort. Everything else would flow from that. Providing a strong university transfer program, college prep ESL for students lacking TOEFL, on-campus housing, one-on-one advising and many other support services gave us confidence to believe that if we could get international students to our campus, they would have a positive experience and would recommend us to others.
International Student Recruitment
Recruitment proved a challenge early on. We experimented with recruitment fairs, advertising and using agents. We even built a branch campus in Japan (it lasted a year). Traditional (and expensive) brand management campaigns seemed unauthentic and futile. In keeping with a strong focus on students, we found that relationship marketing was our best way to reach students and their parents. That realization led us to use agents, for three reasons. One, agents who knew us very well could convincingly recommend us to prospective students, and assure students and parents that they would be looked after by specific Green River staff members they knew personally. Two, agents would be force multipliers for us—we couldn’t afford to go everywhere, but our agents could. Three, we could assure quality control by carefully monitoring the application process and performance of students from each agency. If anything was seriously amiss, we could fire the agent.
Universities and colleges in the UK, Australia and Canada have been using commission-based agencies for decades. They carefully vet them, both at the institutional and governmental level, and are quick to decommission them if they discover fraudulent or unethical practices. Many US institutions, however, are ambivalent about agency use in international student recruitment, despite a recent NACAC decision approving the practice (with conditions). The American International Recruitment Council (AIRC), the first US organization seriously trying to vet overseas educational agents, provides helpful guidance on agency use. In the end, however, it is the sole responsibility of institutions to vet and manage the performance of the agents they use. We have found that by using well-screened agents, and carefully monitoring their performance, we avoid fraudulent practices by students using agents we don’t know. Institutions that do not use agents must be on constant guard against fraud, and have no recourse if it occurs.
Green River’s international program has been blessed by an administration that allows it to experiment and try new things. We call it throwing spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks. Sometimes a great idea is hiding in plain sight. In 1991, the Washington state legislature created a program called “Running Start”, by which qualified high school juniors or seniors could skip their last year or two of high school, take college classes and double count them for both a Washington state high school diploma and an associate degree. It didn’t occur to us to extend this program to international students until an exchange student from Taiwan came to campus with two of his American friends who were signing up for Running Start and wondered if he could join them. We decided to give him a shot. He did fine, so we let a few more try, and they did fine too. The experiment morphed into a program. Today, over 40% of our international students are in High School Completion Plus (HSCP), the international version of Running Start. HSCP students are happy to bypass their very stressful national university qualifying exams back home and fast track to universities one or two years early.
It’s All About Relationships
Green River’s international program worries little about establishing a brand by conventional means like advertising. We’re not UC Berkeley, or even a university. We believe that if our students transfer to quality US universities, and we build good relationships with students, parents, agents and everyone else connected with them, and with each other, good things will happen. This was our philosophy from the beginning. In the age of social media, this philosophy works to our advantage as students, graduates, agents and parents disseminate their thoughts with an authenticity, speed and reach unimaginable ten years ago. This also keeps us honest and on our toes. If we’re not meeting students’ (or educational partners’) needs, we find out right away, and must do our best to set things right. When everything works well, as it does most of the time, Green River provides international students a combination of virtually guaranteed access to top US universities and a “soft landing” into the world of US higher education facilitated by genuinely caring people. Students get this at a third of the cost of tuition at a major US university. We may not be Berkeley, but we can give students a decent shot at getting there and a hug along the way.