Internationalization Key to Success in the International MarketplaceJohn Wilkerson | Director of International Admissions, Indiana University Bloomington
The international student population is getting lots of attention from colleges and universities across the United States. Between 2008 and 2014, international student enrollments at U.S. universities grew 42 percent, despite the recession. These students are largely self-financed and, in 2014, contributed $27 billion to the US economy.
Bringing these students in the door is a clear priority for more and more institutions, but succeeding in this environment takes more than simply including an “International Students” section to the website. This article will address some of the issues driving interest in the internal market, outline some of the challenges to access and persistence for this student group, and share insights into what it takes to successfully serve this demographic.
Factors Driving International Enrollment Growth
Many drivers influence U.S. universities’ interest in increasing enrollments of international students, but two that stand out are campus globalization initiatives and revenue generation.
Setting aside the significant—and necessary—internationalization efforts taking place on many campuses, the realities of budget shortfalls at most public U.S. institutions have certainly impacted active international student recruitment efforts. The publicly funded higher education infrastructure in the U.S. has for years led to our position as the leading destination for higher learning. As the process of defunding public universities continues in most states, the shift to more tuition-reliant funding models is evident. At the same time, many public universities are bound by legislative restraints when establishing tuition rates.
Funding gaps have created an environment where international students—who often pay premium tuition and are ineligible to receive reduced, in-state or resident tuition—are lucrative students to recruit. As the cost of public university education increases, private universities may have greater flexibility in maintaining or shrinking the price gap between them and their public peer institutions. Ultimately, defunding of public higher education has an impact upon both private and public institutions.
Recruitment Challenges: Bringing Students in the Door
From a mobility perspective, increasingly the regions from which international students are recruited are saturated with U.S. university recruiters. This sometimes-crowded field has led to “recruitment fatigue” for students in certain parts of the world. The challenge here for universities has to do with access to qualified and mobile international students.
When a university is able to successfully share the message of their respective institution, the challenges of enrolling those students become fairly similar to those of a U.S. domestic student—cost and community foremost among them. A large part of identifying the right fit between an international student and a particular university has to do with whether or not the student can afford to attend. When an international student is able to successfully address affordability of university study, the conversation shifts to one that considers more deeply the various communities in which the student will participate during their university experience in the States.
Relatedly, international students are increasingly savvy in researching outcomes of graduates. Essentially, they’re considering their return on investment, and rightly so. The challenge to U.S. universities is to collect that information accurately and to make it available to international students. This trend mirrors what many institutions experience with U.S. domestic students involved in the college search process.
Persistence Challenges: Retaining Students to Graduation
Considering the challenges to international students looking to the U.S. for study means considering them within two contexts: the context of the search and application period, and the context of their experiences at U.S. universities.
One of the most significant challenges facing international students in the college search and application process is the troubling expansion of for-profit recruitment companies and private agents. Often, these companies or agents operate outside the binding principals that govern recruitment of students in the United States. For example, a U.S. university could not pay an agent to recruit for them in a U.S. city and base the agent’s payment on the number or quality of students they bring to campus. In disallowing this, U.S. universities are able to focus on finding the right fit between student and institution, and avoid many of the ethical questions that arise otherwise. Unfortunately, this governance of best practice in recruitment stops at the U.S. border.
The accuracy of information provided to international students from for-profit companies or agents is often not as accurate or honest as it should be. This misinformation can impact a student’s persistence because the experience and quality of education they expect upon enrolling with an institution may not be what’s actually on offer. Fortunately, international students can work with EducationUSA offices to receive unbiased, accurate information and assistance through the university search and application process. Most U.S. universities will also encourage students to work directly through our recruiters and counselors. When in doubt, international students should always reach out directly to the universities in which they are interested.
The other challenges that face international students on U.S. campuses will vary widely. Often, they have to do with the acculturation process. Learning new classroom styles, campus layouts, U.S. humor, food portions, and many other new experiences are daunting, but many times these areas are where international students have opportunities for growth in exponential measures.
It seems that at most universities where international student populations are growing, the investment in infrastructure and programming to support these students has kept pace.
The Role of Intensive International English Language Programs in Recruitment and Retention
It’s incredibly difficult for students to integrate into a university in the U.S. without having a solid command of the English language. The expansion of English language curriculum in international high schools is evidence of the demand for language proficiency programs. The presence of university-governed and directly operated English language programs allow U.S. universities to assess non-native English speaking students based upon their academic strength, and allow flexibility in admission in regards to English language ability.
However, some universities have outsourced their English language programs to for-profit recruitment companies who have less interest in student success than financial gain. This gets back to the commoditization of international students that has taken hold in some universities where international students are viewed primarily in terms of revenue generation.
Conversely, intensive English programs (IEP) and English as a second language programs (ESL) that hold specialized accreditation and operate as not-for-profit units governed solely by the universities in which they reside are fantastic gateways to U.S. universities. These programs also demonstrate an institution’s commitment to and support of comprehensive campus internationalization that focuses on right fit between student and university.
What It Takes to Stand Out in the International Student Marketplace
I’ve mentioned the term “internationalization” several times. Universities that approach internationalization in a comprehensive, considered manner stand out. For decades, many institutions have measured their internationalization in terms of the numbers of non-U.S. passport holders in their student body, or among their scholars. They may also consider the numbers of students or researchers they send abroad and the number of countries where the are engaged in scholarly pursuits. Certainly, those metrics are important, but such quantifiers of internationalization are outdated.
Survey data produced by the American Council on Education, Art & Science, and College Board has shown the significant interest of U.S., college-bound students in international programming on our campuses. Research from the Association of American Colleges & Universities tells us that more than 70 percent of employers want universities to place more emphasis on global learning and teamwork skill development in diverse groups. They also indicated that 63 percent of employers believe that too many college graduates do not have the skills they need to succeed in a global economy.
Internationalization not only brings into contact U.S. domestic students with students from around the world, but also integrates them into curriculum that fosters and supports global engagement and learning. This is comprehensive internationalization, and it is the new paradigm.
The onus for integration of international students into our campus communities should no longer fall exclusively upon our international students. International integration is the responsibility of all students, all faculty, all staff. These globalization efforts are taking root at many U.S. universities, and address the international gap that has existed between what U.S. students expect in terms of internationalization and what U.S. employers are experiencing in U.S. college graduates. Comprehensive campus internationalization is compelling and evolving. And that’s a very powerful message to share with students whom we welcome from abroad.
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 Alejandro Ortiz, Li Chang and Yuanyuan Fang, “International students bring money, skills and jobs,” University World News, February 13, 2015. Accessed at http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20150212092452773
 StudentPOLL, “College-Bound Students’ Interests in Study Abroad and Other International Learning Activities,” American Council on Education, Art and Science, CollegeBoard. January 2008. Accessed at http://www.acenet.edu/news-room/Documents/2008-Student-Poll.pdf
 Hart Research Associates, “Raising The Bar: Employers Views on College Learning in the Wake of the Economic Downturn,” January 20, 2010. Accessed at https://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/files/LEAP/2009_EmployerSurvey.pdf