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An Overview of Common Challenges to Growing International Enrollment: Four Key Roadblocks

The EvoLLLution | An Overview of Common Challenges to Growing International Enrollment: Five Key Roadblocks
Growing international enrollments is a priority for college and university leaders across the United States but this can be immensely challenging, especially in resource-constrained environments.

International enrollment management is a deceivingly complicated business. Success, however it is measured at a given institution, depends on both internal and external factors that often fall outside of the sphere of influence of the international enrollment professional.

Below are four of the most common challenges universities face in growing international enrollment:

1. When Growth is the Strategy

International enrollment growth must be done in a manner that is sustainable, responsible and in alignment with the unique vision, mission and strategic goals of the institution. The author Edward Abbey once observed, “growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”[1] Enrollment growth should never be a strategy in its own right, but rather a means to achieving a specific and carefully considered end. While it is well documented that international students bring academic, cultural, economic and other benefits to the host institution and community, it is imperative to develop an international enrollment management strategy that stays true to the core values of the institution. Neglecting to consider short- and long-term opportunities, challenges and obligations associated with international enrollment growth within the unique context of a given institution will inevitably risk making today’s success the fuel of tomorrow’s failure.

2. Organizational Structure and Staffing

A decentralized model of recruitment and admissions may have merits in the domestic graduate enrollment management arena, but the fact is that international recruitment and admissions tend to be too complicated to effectively plan and coordinate in an ad hoc fashion. The organizational challenge to growing international enrollment is ensuring a university has properly trained, adequately positioned and sufficiently knowledgeable staff capable of achieving the institution’s goals and objectives with regards to international enrollment. At institutions where untrained faculty and staff are left to their own devices to understand the opportunities and challenges present within diverse international markets, evaluate credentials from dissimilar educational systems and provide essential services to culturally diverse populations, there tend to emerge very few pockets of excellence.

While a thorough discussion of strategies for optimizing organizational structure and staffing for international recruitment is beyond the scope of this article, readers may find value in two online resources available from NAFSA: Association of International Educators to be of use:

3. Diversity

As evidenced by the Institute of International Education’s annual Open Doors report, U.S. institutions struggle to achieve diversification of international students in terms of nationality and field of study. While a lack of diversity doesn’t necessarily inhibit international enrollment growth, institutions lacking diversity are more at risk for economic, political and other forms of turmoil affecting individual countries and/or world regions. A diversified portfolio not only serves to maximize the academic and cultural benefits international students provide to their host institution and community, but it also lowers institutional risk by spreading exposure across multiple world regions.

4. Lean Process Improvement

It can be tempting to point to external factors as the primary barriers to growing international enrollment, but the most pervasive challenges are often found internally with regard to commonly accepted and unchallenged admissions processes and policies. Successful international enrollment professionals understand the international admissions process from start to end and work to eliminate waste (e.g., excess time and resources).

Similar to the manager of a manufacturing plant, campus leaders responsible for international enrollment management should routinely “walk the floor” by completing an application themselves, testing functionality of online systems and monitoring processing errors and delays. Throughout this exercise, the process should be mapped in terms of relevant stakeholders (i.e., who touches the process?), actions and decisions.

Once the current process is fully understood, a leaner process should be created in consultation with stakeholders keeping in mind what adds value to the process from the perspective of the applicant, what fails to add value, but is required by policy or regulation, and what fails to add value and is not required (steps in this latter category should typically be eliminated). Future goals supported by the new admissions process should not only be focused on final enrollment, but also on processing time and accuracy throughout the process. Readers interested in learning more about lean process improvement methods for enrollment services may wish to consult Christopher Matheny’s article on this topic.

The Impact of Being in a Resource-Constrained Environment

Like anything else, these challenges are exacerbated by the resource-constrained nature of higher education today. Reflecting on the four major challenges to growing international enrollment outlined above, I will re-visit each one to outline how they are further impacted by resourcing challenges.

1. When Growth is the Strategy

Campus administrators operating within resource-constrained environments are often under intense pressure to meet or exceed specific enrollment targets. At some public institutions, where state subsidies are in decline and the domestic college-bound population is either dropping or stagnant, the pressure to recruit international students is amplified. This can lead to exploitive situations where international student enrollment reaches a tipping point and the university no longer has the capacity to adequately serve the unique needs of that population. Eventually, this will have a negative impact on enrollment as fewer students persist to graduation and the institution’s reputation becomes tarnished within key markets.

2. Organizational Structure and Staffing

As the old saying goes, “it takes money to make money.” Unfortunately, in a resource-constrained environment there tends to be little appetite for investing in new positions, technologies and other resources that could, but aren’t guaranteed to, help turn the ship around. Such environments tend to breed across-the-board budget cuts, consolidations and other sweeping tactics that improve the bottom line in the short term, but ultimately alter the institution’s trajectory of success over the long term.

3. Diversity

In a resource-constrained environment, the hungry tend to gorge themselves on the lowest hanging fruits. As such, it is not uncommon for the majority of an institution’s international enrollment to be sourced from one country while enrollment within certain colleges and majors may even be more saturated. There is a world of opportunity available to quality institutions, but accessing the fruit at the top of the trees takes time, expertise and financial investment. In a resource-constrained environment, the acceptable delay between action and result is much shorter, expert workers leave to pursue better opportunities and decision makers tend to direct funds to areas that seem familiar and safe. As such, funding to enter emerging markets may be difficult to acquire.

4. Lean Process Improvement

In a resource constrained environment, international enrollment management professionals may only have the opportunity and support to attend to daily tasks. As such, it can be very difficult to justify costs associated with sending a staff member to be trained in lean process improvement, hiring a consultant to lead a lean process improvement initiative or simply shutting down operations for a few days to utilize internal knowledge and talent. While resource-constrained environments tend to benefit most from lean process improvement strategies, individuals in such environments rarely have the time and money necessary to invest in such initiatives.

This is the first installment in a two-part series by David L. Di Maria exploring the challenges facing international enrollment growth at colleges and universities today, and reflecting on the role an Intensive English Program (IEP) can play in helping to overcome these obstacles. In the second installment, Di Maria will focus on what it takes for an IEP to support international enrollment growth.

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[1] Edward Abbey. (1991). The Journey Home: Some words in defense of the American West. New York: PLUME. Page 183.

Author Perspective: