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How to Improve International Student Recruitment at Your University

Cisco College is located in Cisco, Texas — a couple of hundred miles west of Dallas, firmly at the edge of “west” Texas. Despite its relative remoteness and smaller size, Cisco College’s international student recruitment is up to about 4% of its student population.

Why is Cisco College — both remote and lacking large brand awareness — so successful at attracting foreign-born students to their campuses? And how are they doing it at a time when international student enrollment is down across the country?

An Overview of the International Scene

  • Enrollment by international students in U.S. universities has been trending downward for two years — down 7% in Fall 2017 from the previous year.
  • As economics shift and other English-speaking countries improve their offerings, the competition is growing fiercer. About 4,000 U.S. colleges offer international student programs.
  • Given that international students often pay up to 200% of resident tuition, this drop is having serious effects on some schools’ revenue.

Analyze Your Strategy First

But first, your university (or department or program) needs to understand why it wants to bring more international students to the U.S.

In the world of higher education marketing, trends are often pursued out of habit, not out of intention. Mounting a robust international outreach effort isn’t quick or cheap, so you need to have a clear sense of purpose. Like any goal in your marketing plan, your overseas marketing should be directly tied to your larger organizational goals.

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Where Will You Target?

You need to identify which countries or regions you want to target. This depends, largely, on your school’s unique academic value: In what fields are you special? What subjects has your school invested in? How do you differentiate yourself from your competition?

Target countries/regions with potential students who are likely to want your school’s uniqueness. If you’re a tech school, you’ll want to target tech-friendly countries. If you’re a vocational school for healthcare workers, you’ll want to go after countries with a budding culture of healthcare.

You Have to Go There First

Even if you don’t intend to open a school abroad — and instead just want to bring their students to your domestic campus — you need to travel to your target region. You need to be on the ground — meeting with other schools, interviewing students, soaking in the educational culture. Only by being local can you understand whether your international outreach plan has any legs. (And it will eventually help you craft a more culturally savvy marketing plan.)

Build Relationships, Not Spreadsheets

One of the advantages of on-the-ground recruiting is that it will allow you to nurture more personal, one-on-one relationships with students. This includes talking with their counselors and high-school teachers and, of course, parents. The more you can build a relationship with each student, face to face, the more likely you’ll be to recruit students who’ll thrive on your campus.

What Does Your School Mean to International Students?

A college degree from an American university remains a major achievement in much of the world. While our K-12 ratings continue to languish behind our global counterparts, post-secondary education thrives. For many international students, the notion of graduating from a U.S. university is too attractive to pass up. The academics are great. The research is world-class. And the experience is unique.

Remember, many international students intend to return to their home countries after graduation. So you should position your university as helping them improve their communities. You aren’t luring them away forever; just for a few years, until they’re ready to go make some big changes back home. The quickest way to make someone care about something they don’t (initially) care about is to link it to something they do: themselves and their families, homes, neighborhoods, and communities.

In the world of higher education marketing, trends are often pursued out of habit, not out of intention. Mounting a robust international outreach effort isn’t quick or cheap, so you need to have a clear sense of purpose.”

Watch Your Messages

It goes without saying that you need to be culturally sharp in order to mount a successful international outreach effort. But what does that mean?

First, there’s the obvious stuff:

  • Don’t hire a local translator for your marketing materials. Get someone/some company in your target country to translate. Locals are more apt to identify the opportunities your marketing is missing and the pitfalls it’s about to (unwittingly) make.
  • Don’t be insensitive to the culture of your target country/region. In fact, be especially sensitive to it. (And again, the only way to really do this is go there.)
  • Triple-check your marketing messages for cultural misunderstanding before pushing them into the world.
  • Research how education messages are spread. Some countries — perhaps those in southeast Asian, Europe, etc. — may be more digitally connected than others. So online ads and social media may be an effective channel. Other countries might do most of their international placement through local high schools and government programs.

But a more subtle, tricky, easy-to-mess-up cultural dynamic is: The Ugly American. The Ugly American is a real and prevalent stereotype about Americans in general and American institutions in particular — that we’re loud, brash, arrogant, condescending, coarse. The Ugly American talks at full volume on a hushed London subway or doesn’t take off their shoes when entering a temple in Kyoto.

Don’t make the mistake of spreading a message that makes your school come off as the Ugly American University. In fact, actively sidestep this mistake. Go out of your way to avoid the suggestion that your school is better because it’s America.

The lure of America is strong. That attraction is built in to your brand already. Plenty of international students do think of an American college education as a superior experience.

And yet, it’s easy for American universities to rest on their laurels — as if their mere “American-ness” is reason enough to enroll. It’s not. Your competitor universities are vying for their attention — not to mention the countless wonderful universities in Mexico, Canada, Europe, Asia, etc. You have to pitch a message that differentiates you from them. Being American isn’t enough; and to insinuate that it is will paint your international brand as Ugly.

The First Steps

OK, so your school leadership has talked. They’ve come to the communications team with a mandate: Research how we can improve our international student enrollment by 25% in the next two years.

This new initiative isn’t completely up to you and your fellow marketers, of course. Entire systems have to be activated to grow an international student program — visas and immigration rules, academics, student support, health and housing, etc.

But once those details are locked up and ready to go — or if they’re already in place — the success hinges on what you, the marketer, does. So what do you do?

  1. Book a flight
  2. Schedule as many meetings as you can with local groups — schools, professors, administrators, students, counselors, etc.
  3. While waiting for your trip, read as much as you can about your target students. Read local papers online. Study local schools’ websites. Google yourself silly. Consume as much context about your area as possible.
  4. Get crystal, concrete clear on who you are, as a school. (But then, if you don’t know this, you have bigger marketing fish to fry than international enrollment.)

Cisco College may not be located in a major city or have an enormous marketing budget. But thanks to Cisco’s focus, clear and concrete messaging, and supportive infrastructure for international students, it’s enjoying success because it knows precisely what it has to offer … to every student.

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