How do you build a sustainable international recruitment strategy?

A teacher in a classroom full of students.

Enriching the student pipeline with Ben Webb, QS Regional Director for North America

Global competition is increasing for the US higher education sector. Mid-tier institutions are facing growing domestic recruitment challenges and financial constraints, placing more emphasis on the need for sustainable international recruitment strategies to close the gap.  

Historically, the US has been one of the highest performing markets for international student enrollments, where recruitment strategies have not been critical to institutional success until recent years. Domestic student numbers in the US have declined by 1.9 million since 2013 and while enrollments in private institutions have increased, these haven’t offset the decline in public institutional enrollments (IPEDS – National Center for Education Statistics).  

The decline in domestic enrollments has intensified the financial strain on the sector and put a squeeze on financial stability. Now more than ever, a shift in sentiment towards the internationalization of higher education presents a window of opportunity for the US to remain competitive in the long-term.  

Here are four key things to consider when building a sustainable international recruitment strategy:  

1. Understanding your reputation 

Gaining a full picture of your institution’s reputation on a global scale is the first step to understanding how you are perceived, and which markets you can target for growth. From evaluating academic and employer reputation to establishing your position in university ratings systems, understanding your reputation must come first.   

International students invest significant time and money in their education, and they’re heavily influenced by educational quality, employability, immigration outcomes, network opportunities, and overall student experience. Over half of students interested in studying in North America say that the most important factor when choosing a course is that it’s at a university with a good reputation (QS International Student Survey 2023). 

Universities are innovating, inspiring and changing lives, but with 25,000 global competitors fighting for attention, how do you stand out? No institution is the same, which is why a data-led, tailored approach to reputation is key. 

2. Matching your reputation to the right markets 

Creating a diverse mix of emerging and competitive markets to target is the trick to a sustainable student pipeline, but the right mix comes from matching the right markets to your reputation as an institution. 

Spending budget on recruiting from a large, competitive market that other universities are succeeding in won’t necessarily yield the same results for your institution. It’s important to consider whether the markets you want to recruit from are right for your brand.

By matching reputation to the right market, The Rady School of Management at the University of California, San Diego yielded more than 10 students from India in a single fair tour in 2023. This resulted in more than $700,000 in gross revenue.

Emily Dayton, Director of Specialized Masters Admissions and Recruitment at The Rady School of Management, said: “We’ve been able to reach prospective students in our target markets at scale and with minimal work from our small recruitment and admissions team. We’ve had good return on investment on many of the in-person fairs in our target markets with a high number of leads and an appropriate quality of leads which have converted to applications.” 

3. Meeting students where they are 

University enquiry teams are not currently meeting students’ expectations when it comes to responding to enquiries or communicating the results of applications. Almost two thirds of students interested in North America expect a complete and personalized response to an enquiry within three days. The number of students who expect a response to their application within one week has risen from 49% in 2021 to 55% in 2023 (QS International Student Survey 2023).

Any successful student recruitment strategy should resonate with the student and meet them on the platforms they’re using with the right messages to address their needs. Taking the time to understand prospective students in the right target markets – their motivations, expectations and perceptions – will help to avoid assumptions based on outdated trends and instead relate to students in an authentic way. 

Heading to college is a significant milestone, prompting students to seek out information through various channels. Maintaining an active presence across multiple platforms allows you to reach diverse audiences effectively. Providing accurate and current information wherever students search for it is crucial.  

A substantial majority — 74.2% — of prospective international students looking to study in the US and Canada emphasize the importance of official university websites as their primary source for gathering information about an institution. This preference persists despite the pervasive influence of social media in today’s digital landscape. 

4. Strengthening yield to enrollment  

The story isn’t over once students apply. In fact, 30% of those interested in studying in North America apply to seven or more institutions (QS International Student Survey 2023). So how do you keep those students all the way until enrollment as the university of choice?  

With targeted outreach and enrollment strategies, Robinson College of Business at Georgia State University increased their international applications by 49% and their admissions by more than 5%. Richard James, Associate Director of Graduate Recruitment at Robinson College of Business, said: “[Working with enrollment strategies] has ensured that we are connecting with candidates who are a good fit for our programs and that we’re providing them with the information they want most.” 

He added that developing insights-led solutions has “played a crucial role in ensuring that our institution stays well-informed about the evolving landscape of graduate recruitment, allowing us to make informed decisions which have contributed to our success by generating high-quality leads, ultimately resulting in a positive impact on our program enrollments.” 

Are you interested in finding out how? Let us know your institution’s recruitment or reputation challenges and we’ll build the perfect solution for you.

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