United States colleges and universities face an 11.2% drop in international student enrolment this year, according to the Global Alliance for International Student Advancement (GAISA).
That’s a hefty fall and it’s backed by good reasons: international students have an increasing number of concerns about studying in the US.
Over the past two years, the number of international students in the US has continued to grow – but by just a fraction of a percentage.
Early indications suggest that the prediction from GAISA was about right. Data released towards the end of September showed a 13.7% drop in international student enrolment (Updated data is due in November).
What’s causing this is no secret. Political volatility following the election of Donald Trump, a perceived hostility towards immigrants – particularly from certain parts of the world, a chaotic policy on international students, tension surrounding race relations and the country’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s a perfect storm, and one that is making a huge number of international students rethink their plans.
Most recently, a survey from China found that four out of five parents who planned to send their children overseas to study have postponed those plans.
The reality is that there has been no effort from the administration to present the US as an appealing destination for international students, and colleges are relying on the country’s long-held reputation as an academic destination.
But, as the cracks start to show, is there a way to restore international students’ trust and confidence in the United States? And not just their trust, but that of their parents and families. It will always be an uphill battle in these conditions, but one that is not impossible.
In fact, on 20 October, we were joined by a global audience of 1,500 higher education leaders – from admissions, enrolment management and marketing – to discuss their biggest challenges and best practices. Through collaboration, the higher education sector can continue to promote the mobility of international students. Here are some of the key strategies we encountered during the event.
Virtual activity has grown exponentially in importance for all pre- and post-enrolment activity at colleges and universities. That includes online teaching, virtual campus tours, virtual Open Houses and more.
What we’ve realised during this time is that colleges should have been doing this long ago. Online activity is more accessible for international students, particularly pre-enrolment when travelling to the US for an orientation day or admitted student session is not viable.
As campuses open back up, there will undoubtedly be a tendency for some to abandon these online activities. But now that colleges have established the technology and the expertise to deliver them, why stop? Continuing with that accessibility will support the enrolment of not only 2021 international students, but also out-of-state students.
As fears about travelling to the US increase, peer support will grow in importance for international students.
Peer support and mentorship have an important role in promoting an overseas higher education to international students. A report by research firm Intead showed its global appeal: 51% of prospective students in Asia said chatting online with a student ambassador influenced their decision about whether to apply to a university. And, in Africa and Europe, that number rose to 69% and 62%, respectively.
As the report summarises: “Student ambassadors instil confidence in prospective students and provide encouragement along the way. This provides a unique and honest perspective about academics, student life and local culture.”
This is one of the reasons why Unibuddy and Study in the USA have partnered with 15 colleges around the US to launch a new platform that showcases international students who have already made the trip and allows prospective students to chat to them and ask them about their experiences.
Showcasing your diverse student population is vital to attracting a diverse student population – and this applies to international students, too. International students want to see that your campus has a population that is diverse and welcoming to international students – so giving prominence to the individual stories of specific students will support this.
It’s not just international students – 60% of students do not feel represented by university advertising. Winning back underrepresented populations to higher education means showing them that they will be welcome and that means taking care over the promotional images you use in your marketing, the stories and individuals that are amplified on your website, and even the people whom they meet during (online or offline) visit days and Open Houses.
Give international students a voice
Many colleges have seen a sharp fall in international enrolment – but there are still international students on campus. And it’s all well and good thinking about how to get more in, but you need to dedicate time and resources to the international student experience once they arrive. That involves reducing attrition, increasing satisfaction and ensuring representation.
It means listening to your international students and empowering them to share their experiences with you.
International students are not a homogeneous group – and recognising their unique circumstances and needs will go a long way. Tech-driven solutions, like online peer mentoring, and better marketing solutions, are vital.
But nothing counteracts a bad experience. The priority for higher education institutions now should be ensuring that the international students who are on campus are getting a high-quality higher education experience, then amplifying their stories and enabling them to support the next cohort.
Renait Stephens was born in England and first studied economics at the University of London before then becoming an international student. She graduated with a degree in anthropology and visual art from Evergreen College in Washington State. As CEO of Study in the USA, Stephens oversees company marketing, partnerships and the budget. Diego Fanara is the co-founder and CEO of Unibuddy, the peer-to-peer platform used by 350+ universities worldwide. Born in Switzerland, Fanara founded the company after his experience of choosing a university as an international student.