Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF

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United States poised for more active student recruitment

Already the world’s leading destination for international students, the United States is set to become a more active recruiter of international students. In today’s ICEF Monitor post, we look at what is driving this trend, and examine the latest data on key source markets for America’s still-growing population of international students.

Domestic enrolment expected to slow

According to the US Department of Education, college enrolment growth will slow through 2022. In a report released earlier this year, Projections of Education Statistics to 2022, the department forecasts that college enrolment will increase by 14% between the fall of 2011 and 2022. Nevertheless, this rate of growth is significantly less than the 45% increase observed during the previous 14-year period.

Predictions such as these are only expected to fuel the interest of American institutions in recruiting international students in the years ahead. Indeed, international enrolments already help offset flat – and even declining – interest domestically in some disciplines at the graduate level, and also help cushion the blow of budget cuts at some US colleges and universities.

Use of international education agents expected to rise

Another factor that will likely drive more active international recruitment by US institutions going forward is an expected increase in the use of education agents. As we reported previously, the National Association for College Admission Counselling (NACAC) has removed its ban on American colleges using commissioned agents in international student recruitment. The new requirements are scheduled to take effect after a one-year moratorium during which NACAC’s International Advisory Committee will develop a “best practices guide” for working with commissioned agents. It is expected that the guide will be presented at this year’s NACAC Assembly (Indianapolis, 18-20 September 2014).

Editor’s note: Please see our article following the 2014 conference: “NACAC changes code of conduct to allow international agents, releases agent guide for US institutions.”

Partly due to the longstanding NACAC ban, the use of agents in the US has traditionally been low relative to other major study destinations. In a 2012 survey conducted by the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education (OBHE), US college officials reported that only 11% of their international students were recruited through agents. That ranks the US well behind other destinations such as Australia (where 53% of international students had been recruited through agents), Canada (41%), and the United Kingdom (38%) – all of which are actively expanding their recruitment efforts in pursuit of a larger share of the international student market.

But apart from the shift in NACAC guidelines, there are other signs that the influence of agents in recruiting international students to the US is likely to grow. In part because it is not only institutions that are working with international education agents: many agents are also engaged by potential applicants and their families.

Data from i-graduate, an Observatory-affiliated research group, show that growing numbers of international students cite an agent as playing a key role in deciding where to enroll, and that the latter’s influence is now on a par with that of college and university websites:

“In 2007, only 4% of international students in the United States identified agents as having played a major role in their choice of college. That was in contrast to 43% who cited college and university websites. In 2013, the figures were 28% each for agents and websites.”

New visa rules aim to attract and retain more international scholars

Adding to the mix of factors, proposed changes to US visa rules may also make it easier for American colleges and universities to recruit top international students and academics. The United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has proposed two new visa rules that would extend employment authorisations to the spouses of people with H-1B visas (i.e., limited term working visas) who have applied for permanent residency green cards, and enable certain groups of highly skilled and transitional workers to stay in the US.

These new rules could have a significant impact. University World News reports that the changes will benefit almost 100,000 H-4 visa holders this year, and about 30,000 annually in the future. H-4 visas are issued to accompanying spouses. Under the current regulations, H-4 holders are allowed to stay in the US but are not entitled to work. The proposed changes would allow H-4 holders, whose spouses have applied for permanent residency, to also apply for permission to work in the US.

Currently, 85,000 H-1B visas are issued every year, including 20,000 for students who graduate from US universities. As US Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker has said,

“We must do more to retain and attract world-class talent to the United States and these regulations put us on a path to doing that.”

Secretary Pritzker has also said that the US is proposing another rule that would make it easier for outstanding foreign professors and researchers to demonstrate their eligibility for the EB-1 (employment-based, first preference) visa. At present, foreign professors and researchers must be internationally recognised for their outstanding achievements in a particular academic field, among other criteria, in order to be eligible for the EB-1.

The changing composition of America’s international enrolment

US Immigration’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) reports that there are now more than one million international students in the US. Even so, the proposed changes to US visa rules likely come as welcome news to American educators and recruiters. As reported in The New York Times, the president of the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS), Debra Stewart, said she worries that unless American lawmakers changed the visa system to make it easier for international students to stay and work after graduation, “the United States could lose whatever edge it might have.

Earlier this year, the CGS reported that the preliminary number of applications from prospective international students to US graduate schools rose by 7% in 2014, up from the 2% increase seen in 2013. However, there are lingering concerns about the significance of a 1% decline in applications from China, the source country of one-third of all international graduate students on American campuses. This marks the second year in a row that applications from Chinese students to American graduate schools have fallen, having decreased by 3% in 2013 after years of consistent, double-digit annual growth.

Conversely, the number of applications from India, which accounts for 18% of all international graduate students in the US, surged by 32% in 2014. Meanwhile, applications from Brazil increased by 33% that same year, as did those from Africa (6%), and the Middle East (7%). However, applications from South Korea – the third-largest source of international students in the US – dropped by 5%. There is also some uncertainty as to whether or not the increased numbers of applications from India will persist, given that education decisions there tend to be influenced by economic shifts at home and abroad.

What do these trends mean for international student recruitment? An approach that emphasises diversification across multiple markets may be a better bet in the long term. Furthermore, there is an upside to diversity, something echoed by John Stevenson, graduate dean at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who told The New York Times:

“I kind of like the numbers because they suggest we’re not becoming overly reliant on any one country for our graduate students.”

As for application trends by field of study, science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) remain popular programmes at American colleges and universities. Business, engineering, and physical and earth sciences together represent 64% of all international student enrolment in US graduate programmes. These fields also have the largest increases in applications at 7%, 14%, and 16%, respectively.

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