International student enrollment has been challenged since well before the COVID-19 global pandemic brought the traditional higher education recruitment cycle to a halt in mid-March. It will only become more difficult if colleges and universities do not quickly determine and act upon ways to reach and serve the unique needs of this critically important student population.
According to the November 2019 U.S. Department of State Open Doors Report, new international student enrollment has been down each of the last three years – despite the fact that the number of international students in the United States reached an all time high of nearly 1.1 million in the 2018/19 academic year.
This decline was primarily due to greater competition from institutions in other countries, the rising cost of education in the U.S., and an increasingly divisive political climate, especially as it relates to restrictive policies and harmful rhetoric about immigration and globalization.
These pre-COVID issues have been exacerbated by the well-documented problems international students faced upon the abrupt closure of residential campuses nationwide, the decision to exclude international and undocumented students from the CARES Act, and the fear that the Trump administration may impose new restrictions on international students who want to participate in Optional Practical Training (OPT).
As we look ahead to the 2020/21 academic year, it is very likely that a high percentage of institutions will fail to realize international student enrollment goals. In addition to the health and safety concerns and the general uncertainty that the pandemic has generated, numerous additional barriers now exist. Significant worldwide unemployment means that many students will struggle to pay for higher education, both here at home and abroad. There will also continue to be travel restrictions in place for some locations, and most consular offices remain closed or are offering limited access, thereby making visas difficult to obtain. Of course, travel restrictions have meant that university recruiters have not been able to interact directly with prospective students and their families in their countries of origin as well, and while Zoom has been helpful, it cannot replace face to face interaction. All of these factors together are expected to result in a significant decline in the numbers of international students who will join American colleges and universities this fall. This will impact revenue, and, most importantly, the global learning environment to which many colleges and universities have been committed and promised to their students.
Institutions that remain focused on international student recruitment and global engagement goals will need to invest more resources into long-term strategies to nurture relationships with prospective international students, and to offer academic programs in innovative and interactive formats. Pre-COVID-19, many institutions recruited international students at fairs and agent events. While these have continued, the virtual formats that the pandemic has required make it difficult for all but the most prestigious institutions to distinguish themselves. Hiring local representatives in-market could be an alternative, if they are chosen and managed carefully. Locating current U.S. employees in countries outside the U.S. could also be an option. In both cases, this could avoid issues related to travel between targeted destinations and the U.S. Where regional travel is possible, a well-placed employee could cover several markets and build true brand recognition. This would allow for the establishment of relationships with prospective students at younger ages, as well as underscore the institution’s care for and commitment to the student’s future during even the most trying times.
Efforts to build relationships with domestic international students (international students currently in the U.S. attending high school or community college) will continue as well, but this strategy represents a market that institutions were heavily focusing on already. Moving forward, colleges and universities still have the possibility to create partnerships with schools that recruit significant numbers of international students, and to get to know students and their families long before the third or fourth year of high school. Signing partnership agreements, and especially ones where the high school and the university recruit together, allow an institution of higher education to develop meaningful relationships with the school, its students, and those students’ parents. This can create a pipeline for future applications and admissions.
Another successful partnership model for colleges and universities is with secondary schools outside the U.S. Our institution, The College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York, created an approach like this through an agreement with a two-year, pre-university leadership program in South Africa to recruit students from across the African continent. We also entered into unique agreements with colleges and universities in other countries, enabling students to complete two years of a three-year undergraduate degree program in their country of origin, and then spend the next two years at our institution, where they earn a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree.
Along with investing more resources in the creation of these types of agreements, colleges and universities must also create innovative delivery models that provide the flexibility to respond to shifting world situations. New completely online programs would put an institution in competition with a large number of other providers. In addition, this mode of delivery can be difficult to manage across time zones, and it is often viewed as having very low value in many markets outside the U.S. Some combination of online and in-person instruction, potentially through a partnership with a local institution outside the U.S., will likely be more successful. Depending on world health conditions, finances, and other factors, international students will be able to spend a summer, a semester, a year, or more on the American campus. They may also be able to study “abroad” or complete internships with a cohort of students enrolled at the same university or university partnership in countries outside the U.S.
The global pandemic demands that we develop long-term strategies, invest more resources into collaborations and partnerships, and create innovative delivery models to realize our international student recruitment goals. We must think beyond the boundaries of institution and geography to maximize learning outcomes and growth opportunities for international and all our students, now and in the future.
Dr. Carolyn J. Stefanco serves as president of The College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York. Dr. Alfredo Varela is the College’s associate vice president for global affairs.