“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows” – Bob Dylan.
Anyone working in higher education today does not need a weatherman to know that international recruiting and admissions has changed since COVID-19, and in all likelihood will be changed forever.
This year almost all international conferences have been cancelled and, depending on the higher education institution, between 85% to 90% of all international travel has also been cancelled. In the 27 April issue of The New Yorker, Naomi Fry presents startling facts about the video-conferencing service, Zoom.
Founded in 2011 by Eric S Yuan, Zoom’s valuation hit US$16 billion when the company went public in April. The number of daily users jumped from 10 million last December to two hundred million in late March. The estimated number of daily downloads, which averaged 56,000 in January, was 2.13 million on 23 March alone.
Faced with a decreasing number of international students financially able, or psychologically willing, to travel abroad and, with both domestic and international travel curtailed by colleges and universities worldwide, university planners, admission deans and international recruiters will be required to recruit future students virtually and find alternative ways of reaching potential applicants. And collaboration with advancement leaders is required to be successful in the months and years ahead.
It is a critical time to engage global alumni, students, their families and other international stakeholders in key and emerging markets. It is important to focus on ‘low-hanging fruit’ because sustaining existing strong relationships is an authentic and sincere act in these times.
Additionally, a subset of institutions’ global ambassadors – brand champions – is most likely engaged at the highest level (alumni officers, donors and board members) and has the ability to influence perceptions locally as well as an ongoing interest in enrolment during these challenging times.
‘Global alumni relations’ is the outreach to and engagement of internationally affiliated alumni, students, faculty, staff, families, community and key industry or governmental partners in the support and advancement of institutional priorities at home and abroad. Each stakeholder shares an ability to influence their involvement, each other’s and-or the involvement of the institution in countries abroad.
In the immediate future, institutions will need to seek alternative recruitment sources and may need to make the case that international alumni can be that alternative source.
Some initial questions
Some questions institutions can ask themselves now include:
• Is our organisation involving our alumni and other stakeholders in the most authentic way? Is our strategy shaped by their opinion or perceptions and beliefs about their affiliation?
• How are our competitors approaching recruitment in key markets?
• How will investments in global alumni maximise our efforts to maintain our fundraising priorities?
• Is our institution’s global brand perceived by alumni the same way, or does culture make a difference?
• Is our engagement strategy for current students good enough to last a lifetime?
Before an international recruitment programme can be implemented, college and university deans and recruiters need to establish the feasibility of launching a recruitment programme with alumni volunteers.
To do that the following information from advancement colleagues is needed:
• The number of active alumni in each recruitment country.
• The name, address, current job title and location of alumni interested in recruiting future students (some younger alumni may be pursuing graduate school or not working but may still be tapped to volunteer).
Consider transnational alumni who live and work in two or more countries on a regular basis. Think about domestic and international alumni who are working for a multinational and travel regularly overseas; or, the international alumni who have called the university city home for many years and who make up growing diaspora communities in cities and regional hubs across the world.
Next institutions need to do a review of best practice for international alumni recruitment programmes. This consists of:
• Compiling an international alumni handbook of frequently asked questions, programme updates and institutional changes as a result of COVID-19.
• Organising an online training programme for all interested alumni recruiters to be conducted virtually and with information frequently updated.
• Doing a monthly checklist of all activities.
• Creating a feedback loop to international admissions deans and recruiters from alumni on potential applicants.
• Putting forward a communication plan for both international applicants and their parents (and considering whether plans should be published in local languages).
• Frequently assessing activities for effectiveness.
As employability is a major priority among international students planning to study abroad, it is also important to compile a list of international alumni who are able and willing to provide career guidance, relevant work experience and internships for accepted and enrolled students; and develop ways to recognise alumni volunteers and schedule this into the quarterly activities.
Next institutions need to assess the effectiveness of the programme on a quarterly basis and make necessary adjustments, including:
• Compiling a list of all accepted and enrolled students recruited by international alumni.
• Communicating the impact of alumni efforts in building interest and more applications.
• Recognising alumni volunteers through the involvement of presidents, deans and other alumni leaders, such as trustee chairs or council presidents.
Taking the long view
Prospective students will continue to find information on overseas studies from an increasingly diverse range of sources and can obtain differing views. One source that is authentic and largely irrefutable is alumni.
International alumni and their families provide personal perspectives which go beyond COVID-19, the lack of on-campus experience this year and comparisons between in-person and online instruction. International alumni take a much-needed long view, providing feedback on the usefulness of their degree in their homeland and how it is perceived today.
As they mature, alumni can become champions within business or academic communities for the institution or country. They may also find themselves becoming financially successful and on the donor list of an institution.
We live in a world where established norms are continually unravelling at the edges. At the intersection of disruption and unpredictability will emerge a new model for higher education. And that model will include, by necessity, a more effective and efficient use of alumni to assist with the recruitment and enrolment of future international students.
Gretchen Dobson is a global engagement strategist, author and academic with 27 years’ experience across five continents. Dobson advises CEOs, chief human resource officers, governing boards and policy-makers on best practices in edtech and other creative strategies and solutions that enable institutions, companies, organisations and governments to identify, track and manage relationships with their global stakeholders and brand ambassadors. Marguerite Dennis is an internationally recognised expert in international student recruitment, enrolment and retention. She has more than 25 years of experience consulting with colleges and universities in the United States and around the world.