Understanding Current and Emerging International Student Markets

Fall 2019

By Kila McCann

seeingtheworld.jpgUnited States is ranked second in the U.S. News & World Report 2019 “Best Countries for Education” report, bookended by the United Kingdom in the top spot and Canada placing third. There are many reasons the United States is considered among the top destinations to study: The quality of education and the diverse nature of course offerings and delivery methods suggest an opportunity for a richer and more engaging learning environment than is available in other countries. Independent schools in the United States also focus on the growth of the whole child, so the opportunity to acquire a new experience, balance one’s studies while pursuing a passion, and be immersed in a supportive, English-language environment add to the allure of studying here. 
The 2018 “Open Doors” report on international educational exchange, published by the Institute of International Education (IIE), indicated the number of international students in the United States reached a new high of 1,094,792, an increase of 1.5% from 2017. Even though the United States is considered a leading destination for international students, independent schools cannot take their market position for granted. The market share in once-thriving areas is shrinking, and as the education landscape continues to change, the need to diversify, strategically recruit, and support and actively retain international students has systemically impacted independent schools’ admission initiatives, pedagogy, student-life curriculum, and the necessary financial commitment affecting institutional operating budgets.
Untangling the international recruitment and admission web can be complex and challenging as enrollment managers and admission directors must decipher where to travel, who to partner with, and how to position their schools’ programs properly. To help do this well, schools must understand where international students have historically come from, what factors are shifting, and what new markets schools are beginning to uncover.

The Lay of the Land

Global markets such as Germany, Japan, Korea, and Mexico have historically provided an abundance of full-fee paying, mission-appropriate candidates for independent schools. When I began my career in admission, Korea was a thriving, competitive market—in the early 2000s, boarding school admission offices were able to be highly selective when considering Korean students, choosing those with the highest Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) scores. However, today, many of our schools struggle to see one student from Korea in the inquiry pipelines. The recession of the early 2000s deeply affected the Korean economy, which in turn impacted the number of students seeking educational opportunities abroad. Korea—a country that relies heavily on exports of steel, automobiles, textiles, and electronics—has a strong history in economic recovery and may resurface as a viable market in the future. 
Meanwhile, other Asian markets that had been a good source of international students are also seeing decline. According to the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), the number of students from Asian countries, including Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, and Thailand, was down in the 2018–2019 school year. A decline might be attributed to a recent trend toward modernization and internationalizing of education systems to match schools abroad or a country’s financial stability, or instability.
In the past 10 years, however, China has emerged as the largest international student pipeline, and it’s reflected in the student body makeup at most independent boarding schools across the country today. At Fountain Valley School of Colorado (CO), where I’m currently the director of enrollment management, 13% of our student body is from Mainland China. According to the 2018 “Open Doors” report, the number of Chinese nationals studying in the United States increased 3.6% in 2017–2018 for a total of 363,341 students. China is reaping the benefits of the economic reforms of 30 years ago and now has a GDP that has seen a 15% increase since. China is primarily an export-driven economy that has gained momentum from foreign investment and the benefit of low-cost migrant labor. There likely isn’t a future market that will have as deep an impact on our schools.
The second largest population of international students studying in the United States is from India, which also saw an increase of 5.4% to 196,271 students for the 2018–2019 school year. And Mexican students have long considered the United States as the primary destination for education. But at Fountain Valley, we experienced a significant decrease after the 2016 presidential election, with Mexican students opting for more “internationally friendly” countries such as Canada. Political influence was not the sole reason for the migration further north. In the past two years, I have considered three Mexican students for admission only to have two of them matriculate to a Canadian school, citing cost as the primary reason.

Future Focus

To many around the globe, the United States is the land of opportunity with a long history of welcoming foreigners. For many of our schools, we place great importance on having a student body that is reflective of the world, and as such, new countries are emerging as hot spots for recruitment.
The Fall 2018 issue of ICEF Insights, which reports current and emerging trends in international education, indicates that Bangladesh, Brazil, Colombia, Indonesia, Iran, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam are areas that are growing and ripe for recruitment. These potential markets are gaining momentum due to political shifts, growth in economies, and reallocation of or investment in resources such as oil and GDPs. Independent schools might not be as established as post-secondary institutions in these markets and will likely need to allocate resources to diversify recruitment and enrollment from these regions.
According to ICEF Insights data, the United States is receiving favorable numbers of students for both secondary and post-secondary programs from Brazil, Colombia, Germany, Iran, Japan, Kuwait, Nepal, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Spain, South Korea, Taiwan, Turkey, the United Kingdom, Venezuela, and Vietnam. In Colorado, I’m currently seeing growth in Vietnamese students, with enrollment numbers increasing from one to two students six years ago to eight currently enrolled for the coming year. Vietnam is experiencing steady growth in the number of high school-aged students and economic growth, however there are still issues surrounding affordability. Schools that want to recruit in Vietnam may want to consider marketing scholarship or tuition assistance opportunities that are available to students. We’ve also seen some interest from Brazil, Colombia, and Nepal, mostly because of the population of school aged-students and the reputation of education in the United States.

Investment Matters

Developing a strategic approach is imperative to successfully yield international students. Boards and administrative leadership will need to consider allocating specific budgetary resources and apply targeted marketing tools to support international recruitment efforts. Deciding where to travel, the best time of year as it pertains to a specific market, and whom to meet with should be established during the planning phase.
Then, admission professionals should also consider the best way to educate a potential new market about their schools. Social media platforms, nationally based partners in each country, alumni, and specialized recruitment efforts such as school fairs and tours are a few opportunities admission professionals can use to enhance recruitment efforts. 
Admission offices should incorporate the cost of travel, anticipated yield, and time commitment to each market. For instance, when working within a new market, is the goal to test the viability of that market for your school or is there an anticipated number of students your school must enroll to make the return on investment worthwhile? Is your school committed to a three-year plan to develop the market? If so, what is that plan? Will your cultivation efforts require multiple visits within the recruitment year?
As part of the plan—and not to be overlooked—once international students are admitted, schools must consider what support systems will be in place to meet their needs. Specific religious or cultural norms, dietary considerations, varying language levels of students and parents, and accessibility to campus are just a few of the many components that school communities should be prepared to address. Often admission offices can provide insights about international students, which can help educate faculty, develop best practices to support international students, and create institutional awareness.

Tips from the Road

As I’ve considered potential markets over the past 20 years in both college and boarding school admission, I’ve developed tips for schools that are looking to build on their diverse and inclusive communities.
Create a strategic plan.
Incorporate the who, what, when, and how as well as cost and anticipated outcomes. The plan is especially helpful in measuring the success of your recruitment efforts, preparing for the future, and educating your head of school and board of trustees about your work to enroll a diverse student body.
Be accessible.
China uses WeChat as a social media platform. Viber is widely used in Vietnam. Korea relies on Kakao. It is important to understand how a family communicates and what mechanism is easiest for them. 
Be flexible.
Understanding that traffic in Beijing or a torrential rainstorm in Montego Bay might impact the timeliness of your scheduled appointment will help you exercise patience despite curveballs.
Be curious.
Developing an awareness and understanding of other cultural nuances will help you educate your school community and the students you are recruiting. Take time to visit a landmark, eat a traditional meal, or visit a school.
Travel with a colleague.
The road can be lonely and isolating at times, and it is good to combine efforts in the interest of efficiency. 
Consider a primary point person.
Within your school, who can your international families reach out to? Providing a primary point person for your international families will help alleviate confusion and stress.  
Share what you know with your school community.
By educating faculty and staff members, you can instill awareness about your international students and their families. If our schools better understand who our students are and where they come from, we can provide better support systems. 

Discussion Questions

When thinking about a potential market, schools should consider:
  • Is your program appealing to the particular market?
  • What value does the market place on education, and is education a priority?
  • Is your school accessible?
  • What are political relations like between the country and the United States?
  • Does your school have connections or avenues such as alumni, agents, consultants, consulates, etc. to leverage as part of your efforts?
  • Will you need to allocate financial-aid dollars to yield students?
  • Is there interest or awareness from the market?
  • Is the market attuned to the many opportunities of studying in the United States?
  • Does your school have a favorable reputation in the market?
Kila McCann

Kila McCann is director of enrollment management at Fountain Valley School of Colorado in Colorado Springs, Colorado.