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Standing Out in the Crowded International Marketplace

The EvoLLLution | Standing Out in the Crowded International Marketplace
As the international marketplace becomes more and more populated, both by prospective students and competitors, institutions need to work harder than ever to stand out.

Many professional international student recruiters in higher education institutions recognize that the demographics, as well as the number of options for international students, have changed radically over the last twenty years. Additionally, the proliferation of social media as a means by which students acquire and disseminate information has also impacted the recruitment process. Consequently, the strategies needed to recruit students have also changed.

Recruiters must be sensitive to preferred social media in the varying countries, geo-marketing  (targeted marketing in specific geographic areas) and Internet marketing, the importance of web presence, the need for rapid response rates, and the emphasis placed upon rankings.[1] Those charged with international student recruiting need to gather and analyze data, consider their ROI (per student cost from prospect to conversion), and work in concert with the institutional mission, strategy and specific goals in regards to the institution’s desired international student profile.

Proliferation of English programs

In a presentation at EAIE (European Association of International Education), Bernd Wächter of the Academic Cooperation Association (ACA) said the number of ETP (English Taught Programs) had tripled since 2008, reaching an estimated 7,000.[2] The Nordic countries and the Netherlands were the main providers and the majority of the programs were offered at the master’s level. The PIE News reported,  “In 2014, there were 8,089 programs taught in English, a significant increase from 2,389 seven years ago.”[3]

In July 2012, the ICEF Monitor commented on the ETP trend and noted that universities with ‘global ambitions’ would deliver courses in English to lessen the barriers that the home country language might create.[4]

The British Council report, The English Effect, points to how many emerging economies are requiring English in the school curricula and offering post-secondary programs in English. It calls English a highly valued technical skill. To wit, “For the generation soon to inherit influence in commerce, politics, media and cultural life, ‘connectedness’ is a major priority; technology is the vehicle that they have chosen; and English is increasingly the fuel on which it will run.[5]

With English spoken by a quarter of the world’s population, there are certainly opportunities for US institutions to recruit international students; however, institutions can’t become complacent because their product—a US English-based education—may no longer be unique. Non-English speaking countries are increasing their master’s- and doctoral-prepared faculty. Indeed, a number of countries have invested heavily in post-graduate education for their professoriate (e.g., Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Indonesia, Nigeria, Russia, Turkey, Vietnam).

International student profile

At the AIEA  (Association of International Education Administrators) February 2015 conference, Clay Hensley from the College Board (using College Board and Open Doors data) noted:

  1. A 6 percent growth in undergraduates coming to the United States (2013-14),
  2. Institutions are allocating more financial resources to strategically attract international undergraduates. In 2008-09, 613 institutions offered $579 in awards (on average). In 2013/14, 7,088 institutions offered $1,006 in awards (on average).
  3. International mobility continues to increase to the USA. However, students are coming from just a few source countries (Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, China).
  4. SAT 1 and 2 registrations—used to indicate aspirations to study in the USA—were at 243,000 in 2009 and 400,000 in 2014, with the greatest increases in Middle East/North Africa and Asia.

Top universities are gaining market share, with 3 out of 10 international students attending one of the top 50 institutions with the most international undergraduates. Nearly half of all undergraduates are enrolled in doctoral/research institutions and 68 percent are enrolled in city-based institutions (vs. town or suburb).[6]

While there were 4.5 million international students in 2012 (with Asia as the dominant source), the UNESCO prediction is that there will be 7 million in 2020.

Strategies to compete

Universities in the United States (and elsewhere) that are not highly ranked or do not have extensive brand recognition are using educational agents and paying commissions. Many students use agents who are compensated by the families directly and not by institutions. Others have developed, or contracted with, pathway programs to attract students who might be offered full admission once they complete the pathway program.[7]

Additionally, price-point may be the differentiating factor for some families in choosing an institution, especially when it comes to picking between public and private institutions. International students are also becoming well acquainted with the two-year institution option, where students initially enroll at a community college and transfer to a four-year university upon completion of general distribution requirements, thereby considerably reducing the cost of degree completion.

Finally, there is the value-added proposition. Many families abroad clearly see a connection between higher education and employment. Many students seek internships as part of their university-provided educational experience. Institutions that have directed resources at developing internship opportunities for their international students greatly strengthen their appeal.

Remaining current

Recruiters need to pay close attention to international student mobility trends as they are affected by international relations (including visa regulations), in-country politics, economic changes (for the better or the worse), and the investment that nations are making in their higher education systems.

Therefore, those responsible for international student enrollment should peruse online publications such as American Council, The EvoLLLution, EKAI Group, ICEF Monitor, the Chronicle of Higher Education, IIE Interactive Newsletter, The Times Higher Education, and the University World News. Numerous international professional organizations generate excellent listservs (e.g. AIEA, AIRC, EAIE, NAFSA). Additionally, there are numerous private entities providing international student intelligence (e.g.,, WES, INTEAD). This is certainly not a comprehensive list, but a strong starter-set of resources for professionals in this space.


Despite the aspirations of international students, not every student will gain admission into the top 50 universities. Institutions that don’t enjoy a Top-50 or even a Top-100 ranking are nevertheless actively recruiting successfully. Consequently, it is important to relay the value-added proposition that accredited institutions in the US can offer: programmatic choice, quality programs, career opportunities (internships and counseling), and alumni networking. Additionally, a number of US institutions have partnered with institutions abroad to provide dual-degree opportunities, in-country campuses, and/or articulation agreements providing ease of credit transfer. Notwithstanding, international student recruitment remains a challenge and the competition will continue to increase as more non-English speaking institutions offer English taught programs.

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[1] Lisa Cynamon Mayers, “Geotargeting and Retargeting in Digital Marketing,” Intead, November 11, 2014. Accessed at

[2] Bernd Wächter, “Rethinking the role of English-taught Programmes in European Higher Education Area.” Accessed at

[3] Natalie Marsh, “Nordic countries lead Europe in English-taught programmes,” The Pie News, February 24, 2015. Accessed at

[4] “Trend Alert: English spreads as teaching language in universities worldwide,” ICEF Monitor, July 11, 2012. Accessed at

[5] “The English Effect,” The British Council. 2013. Accessed at, page 7

[6] Delores Blough, Michael Waxman-Lentz, and Clay Hensley, A New Era in Student Mobility: Emerging Opportunities for International Student Recruitment, AIEA 2015 conference presentation, Washington DC

[7] “Pathway Members,” American International Recruitment Council.


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