Growing your international enrollment--panacea or pitfall?

October 3, 2017
  • AACRAO Connect
  • AACRAO Consulting
Various arrows, most of which are trending upwards, are overlayed on a pixelated screen showing a global map.

by Susan Gottheil, Vice-Provost (Students), University of Manitoba; Senior Consultant, AACRAO Consulting

The pressure to find new students keeps ratcheting up and our enrollment marketing strategies have been evolving quickly to keep pace. With demographic shifts, declines in domestic high school graduation rates, budgetary pressures, and—more positively—the growing importance of internationalization to prepare our students for careers in the global economy it is not surprising that international enrollment on almost every college and university campus in the United States and Canada has been rising (in many cases quite dramatically) over the past decade. This desire to attract international students on our part is being fed by a growing middle class in the developing countries of Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

However recent political and economic shifts in both Europe and the United States should lead many of us to pause and question the pitfalls of relying on international markets that may quickly disappear.  Pressure from trustees, boards and governments to report on student outcomes have also caused many institutions to dig deeper into institutional data to look at international student persistence and graduation rates.  The picture is not always positive.

Student surveys and focus groups indicate that many of our international students face culture shock and an integration challenge-- they are lonely, isolated, and struggle to form friendships; they are confronting a different educational system and culture with different academic expectations; and they sometimes feel that they are stereotyped and are the targets of racism. With tuition fees double or triple those of domestic students enrolled in the same program, it is no wonder that many international students feel that they are “cash cows”.

Our local hydro utilities company urges its customers to plan carefully if we’re building or renovating. Its slogan warns to: “Call before you dig”. Similarly, an environmental scan and holistic international strategic enrollment (SEM) plan that identifies shifts in economic and immigration policies and includes academic and cultural student supports should be developed before you book flights overseas to recruit more international students.

In addition to an in-depth analysis of potential recruitment markets, such a plan should include:

  • An evaluation of program demand and program capacity

  • Housing accommodations (on- and off-campus, food plans that include diverse choices, international grocery stores, holiday closures)

  • Transition and orientation programming (pre-arrival and post-arrival, on-line and in-person)

  • English language supports (ESL courses, writing tutors, reading clinics, pathway programs)

  • Academic integration advice (academic integrity tutorials and support for students; pedagogical support for instructors)

  • Advising support (immigration and visa, academic, career development)

  • Physical and mental wellbeing (health insurance, intercultural personal counselling, outreach programming, spiritual services and supports)

  • Cultural and social integration (peer mentor and buddy programs)

  • Financial aid (entrance and in-course merit and need-based aid, emergency loans)

In short, a focus on international recruitment alone without thought to academic, social and cultural supports to ensure our international students succeed may lead to reputational risks and an erosion of institutional brand.  As you integrate international recruitment into your SEM plan be sure that you also focus on the entire international student experience and ensure international student success. Without proper planning students who we attract to our campuses may flounder.

For help in assessing your readiness for expansion in international markets and the integration of the international student market in your SEM Plan, be sure to attend the premier enrollment planning conference, October 29-November 1, 2017, in Phoenix, or contact AACRAO Consulting.

Click here for resources to recruit and retain qualified international students.

Register now for AACRAO International's Winter Institute for International Transfer Credit.


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