International students have shown they are more determined than ever to get to the United States, and institutes of higher education are as passionate as they are about making that happen.
After a period that saw rare declines in enrollment of international students coming to the U.S., this year saw 43% more applications sent to colleges and universities. That renewed optimism was fueled by a number of factors that included an improved health crisis, more in-person learning options and a more welcoming political environment.
“The reality is, over the past several years, it’s been a little complicated getting students to the United States,” Dr. Angel Perez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), told a virtual audience at the 2021 Forum presented by the U.S. Department of State’s EducationUSA. “But the good news is visa issuance is returning to pre-pandemic level, and the Biden Administration is very supportive.”
Still, there is an uncomfortable uncertainty that persists for some of the 1.1 million international students who study here, driven by the Delta variant, travel issues and the thought of deferrals. So, college teams are having to get creative, being more supportive, more adaptable, more focused on building partnerships and connections virtually and accepting that this new normal isn’t completely normal.
“I think a big theme, the whole year is being flexible,” says Bryan Gross, Vice President of Enrollment Management and Marketing at Western New England University, which boasts 300 students from 30 different countries. “It’s really hard to put out a firm policy or stance now knowing how quickly things change.”
Mirka Martel, Head of Research, Evaluation and Learning at the Institute of International Education (IIE), agrees. She says, “we anticipate the recovery to come in phases, tied to vaccinations and travel guidelines.”
That has institutions holding their collective breath. International students comprise more than 5% of all campus populations, contribute almost $40 billion to the economy, prop up enrollment numbers, boost campus diversity and support more than 400,000 jobs. There is also competition for those students from countries such as the UK, China, Canada and Australia. Students who come here do far more than fill housing on campuses.
“International education is critical to the development of strong diplomacy, global affairs and technological and medical advancements,” Esther Brimmer, Executive Director and CEO of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, noted at the EducationUSA event. “Attracting international students and scholars is an important way for the United States to grow its knowledge economy. They drive research-theory classrooms.”
And they are intent on coming back to the U.S., to the delight of higher ed leaders. “The great interest among students has not lessened at all with the pandemic,” said Darla Deardorff, Executive Director of the Association of International Education Administrators (AIEA).
Meeting international students “where they are” and providing personal touches are common ideals shared by experts. Deardorff and Dr. Brian Whalen, Executive Director at the American International Recruitment Council (AIRC), stressed the importance of colleges following through on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, especially in assessments, while prioritizing internationalization of curriculum and research, mobility options and affordability. Through the toughest days of the pandemic, they did a remarkable job connecting with partners to perform outreach and assistance and provide steady guidance to international students and families.
“That was a signal to me that going forward we’re going to see a lot more partnerships and more collaborations,” Whalen said. “Institutions need to understand why it’s critically important to integrate [DEI] into each segment of international enrollment and to be able to employ a range of strategic approaches to achieve this. We can’t lose that momentum.”
Whelan also talked up the many unique pathways offered to those who come to study in the U.S., a great selling proposition. For example, Gross said Western New England’s pool of prospective international students includes those already studying in the U.S., at high schools, boarding schools and community colleges. Pre-college programs, too, also give students a taste of the college experience, while affording institutions the chance to showcase their value and get instant feedback.
“Students get to test-drive institutions they may be interested in applying to,” said Christine Parker, Executive Director of Summer Session at The University of Chicago. “If you provide a quality experience and you promote messages and invite people to talk about their experience with others, it’s surprising how powerful that can be.”
One of the most viable pipelines of opportunity for students and colleges has been the 2+2 program. Despite drops in overall enrollment, community colleges were as nimble through the pandemic as four-year institutions in their outreach efforts.
“The real innovators used this time to look at new ways to reach students,” said Dr. Stephanie Kelly, Executive Director of Community Colleges for International Development. “They recruited faculty already involved in study abroad. They recruited staff and students with connections in other countries to be emissaries for higher education. Other members were leveraging their new virtual exchange programs. I encourage you to break down the silos between international student recruiting and curricular and co-curricular programs. While international student recruiting is a competitive field, there are many ways community colleges and universities actually provide a better service for students who want to come study here, and can work together.”
Recruitment strategies that work
Speaking of recruiting, admissions and advising experts weighed in on important areas that college leaders should be considering as they try to reach students through the year.
- The personal touch: “Parents have been feeding back to me, it’s about personal relationships,” Gross says. “Anytime they called, people got back to them. You think about all the technology, all the fancy marketing and virtual events, but I think a big storyline for our success was doing what we’ve always done so well, which is connecting with people.”
- Staying connected: “Good old-fashioned email still works. Zoom. Interviews were really the best thing for us,” said Reon Sines-Sheaff, Director of International Admissions at the College of Wooster in Ohio. “Students wanted to connect one-one-one, so we had individual options to engage and connect on What’sApp or WeChat. But figure out what is too much. Some of my colleagues in China have hundreds of requests for virtual visits. Make sure you have a topic besides your school. We’ve done case studies, essay workshops, [conversations on] sustainability and athletics. Those were the topics that got us in front of students.”
- Webinars and topics: “If students can Google it, they don’t want to hear about it in a webinar,” said Katherine Scodova, and EducationUSA Regional Education Advising Coordinator for Europe and Eurasia. “What they are looking for is insider information, how to stand out in the admissions process, how they stand out if you’re test-optional, how to create a portfolio.” Jess Strong, Recruitment Coordinator at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, stressed giving students information they need, such as, “what life on campus might be like, financial aid, how do they get involved. Students don’t necessarily need the nuts and bolts of the admissions process.” Scodova also highlighted the value of professors hosting mock classes, breadth across several social media channels and virtual fairs, which “were a great way to us to have more institutions participating than typically would come in person.”
- Visa delays: “I don’t have a lot of positives,” Scodova said. “Quite a few countries remain closed for visas or have slow visa appointment times. Students have been traveling to countries to get visas. We’ve had students from Russia travel to Mexico to get visas. This has been hard because of various travel restrictions due to COVID. Those that didn’t get their I-20s right away were struggling to get appointments in July and August. Trying to figure out other ways to support them is helpful. Please reach out to them and find other options. They want to come to campus. They want to be engaged. So to be stuck at this point is heartbreaking. For students trying to come in January, urge them to get a visa appointment as soon as possible.”
- Test-optional: Scodova recommended that institutions that are test optional promote that. Many students and families remain confused about their value, and high achievers want to submit scores but often have to travel long distances to take exams at limited test centers.
- Get in front of parents: Most experts recommend this, especially with the pandemic still lingering. Parents want to know that their children are safe and are being given the best academic opportunities to succeed. Their feedback also can be very powerful for institutions. Sally Konover, Director of the International Education Center at Diablo Valley College in Concord, Calif., said of the pre-college program experience: “They’re key in marketing because what’s better than to have a happy mother or father talking about their program that their son or daughter just went on, and helping to spread the word.”
As 2021-22 may be as unique as the previous academic year, there are countless considerations. But college reps must remain steadfast and positive.
“How can we make something that might be seen as an obstacle into an opportunity?” said Amber Longtin, Senior International Admissions Counselor at Michigan State University. “You may only be in front of students for 5-10 minutes. What can we do now that we couldn’t provide before?”
Gross said any international student program must be done with the intent of helping them succeed, not boosting bottom lines.
“With declining demographics, change in consumer mindset, unsustainable tuition discounting practices and the rhetoric around struggles in higher ed, a lot of institutions have jumped on the international recruitment market,” he said. “They’re doing it because they’re hoping to diversity their portfolio. No matter what, you’ve got to be in it for the right reasons. International students provide such richness. They benefit our domestic student experience. They benefit our faculty. It’s powerful for our brand and powerful for the students.”