Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF
7th Mar 2013

WES report highlights US capacity to grow undergraduate enrolment

A new report from WES (World Education Services), “International Student Mobility Trends 2013: Towards Responsive Recruitment Strategies” contains valuable information on (a) global international student mobility patterns and (b) areas of growth and potential for international student enrolments in the US in particular. In this article we will focus on the report’s findings as they pertain to the latter subject: trends and potential in the US international education sector. WES finds that on a global scale, “international student enrolment growth is driven by students at the undergraduate level; in other words, they are increasingly studying abroad at a younger age.” In the US specifically, undergraduate enrolments have increased by 37% between 2004 and 2012 as compared to 10% at the graduate level at the same time. While this is impressive, the growth has amounted to US enrolments of undergraduate international students much lower – as a proportion of the total undergraduate population – than those found in other leading destination countries. For example, in the UK, 13% of the undergraduate population was international in 2012, and in Australia, it was 24%. Contrast that to the US where just 2% of the undergraduate population was international in 2012. This suggests a tremendous capacity for growth in the US for international undergraduate enrolment. The source countries with the most potential to send undergraduate students abroad, according to the US, are:

  • China (which sent fully 74,500 undergraduate students to the US in 2012, vs. merely 8,000 in 2004);
  • Malaysia, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia (more than 70% of international students from these countries studying in the US are enrolled in associate’s and bachelor’s programmes).

Meanwhile, WES’s data analysis finds that markets such as Iran, Taiwan, and India are responsible for a greater proportion of graduate students.

Business degrees in demand

The WES report concludes that business degrees are the most popular single field for international students – especially at the undergraduate level (science and engineering degrees are more popular at the graduate level):

“International undergraduate students in business studies grew by approximately 60% in the US between 2003 and 2011, with nearly three out of ten international undergraduates enrolled in business fields.”

Intensive English programmes are also popular

Especially given the younger age at which many international students are studying abroad, the need for language preparation to enable students to succeed academically at the university/college level is high.

Correspondingly, the IEP sector (Intensive English Preparation) has been growing faster than any other field of study in the US in the last few years.

WES reports that “a total of 38,900 international students in the US were enrolled in this type of programme in 2011/12, which is more than 2.5 times as many as in 2003/04.” WES goes on to say that the top four senders of IEP students in 2011/12 were Saudi Arabia, China, South Korea, and Japan.

In recruiting undergraduate students, technological strategies are crucial

A previous WES report found that university websites are “the top information source” for US-bound international students, and the 35 admissions officers interviewed for the current WES report noted such technological enhancements as:

  • Virtual college fairs
  • Web-based presentations
  • Webinars
  • Videos
  • Webchats
  • Videos
  • Skype

Such enhancements can move students from simply finding out about a school to becoming engaged and ideally, converted to request more information or apply.

And the list is growing longer, including reaching out to students via both major and niche social networks and using sophisticated techniques like experiential marketing. WES notes that technology “allows universities to reduce conversion time and personalise communication – an important aspect of satisfying younger students who expect fast turnaround service.”

Research and brand work is the foundation

Knowing (a) who target markets are and (b) what their preferences and needs are regarding study programmes and preparatory pathways is key, especially given prospective international students’ remote locations, their regional/language idiosyncrasies, and the unique marketplaces that to a certain extent shape their study aspirations.

Tailoring your marketing and branding once this research is done is crucial. The WES report notes: “Generic promotions and advertisements … do not address the unique characteristics of prospective international students,” and quotes one interviewee as saying, “these kinds of ‘cattle calls’ yield very little [Return on Investment] because the recruitment channel likely ‘addresses candidates who are not suitable.’”

Being where international students are – which is increasingly online and on social networks, especially among the young students the WES report says are composing more and more of the US enrolment population – is crucial to the recruitment efforts of any institution courting international students.

We have recently devoted a number of articles to social networks, including:

We have also written on the importance of branding, via articles such as:

Given the huge potential for international undergraduate admissions in the US, there is a final point: branding programmes targeting international students will increasingly have to consider the secondary school markets in priority countries.

Secondary school students – and their families – will have preconceived notions about study abroad, and either reinforcing them (in the case your institution is already being considered) or changing them (e.g., adding your institution to the consideration set) will be important.

So too will be the support services afforded to international undergraduate students at an institution – families of young students in particular will be very concerned with issues of safety and social supports, as well as robust resources to help students succeed academically (e.g., pathway programmes, academic advising, etc).

Having alumni and current students attest to positive experiences at an institution makes a good deal of sense too, as word-of-mouth remains one of the top influencers – at any level – of where students choose to study.

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