Undergraduate international enrollment is down 14%. Here’s how you can respond

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Undergraduate international enrollment is down 14%. Here’s how you can respond

$41B

NAFSA: Association of International Educators reports international students contributed $41 billion to the US economy during the 2018-19 academic year.
NAFSA: Association of International Educators reports international students contributed $41 billion to the US economy during the 2018-19 academic year.

It’s no surprise that enrollments are down this fall. But no student group has experienced a more dramatic enrollment decline than international students. According to the National Student Clearinghouse, international undergraduate enrollments have declined by almost 14%, while enrollments among international graduate students have fallen 8%. And some of the enrollment leaders I’ve spoken with, especially from highly selective institutions, shared their declines in international student enrollment are even greater.

So why does this matter? NAFSA: Association of International Educators reports international students contributed $41 billion to the US economy during the 2018-19 academic year. And for every seven international students, three US jobs are created and supported by international students’ spending. For higher ed, fewer international students mean the loss of diverse, global perspectives that enrich campus communities and promote cross-cultural education. It also means billions lost in tuition revenue that are very difficult to replace in the shrinking US market. 

While we can’t predict the future of international enrollments, here are a few things enrollment leaders can do now to shore up their international student pipeline—and optimize their domestic student recruitment strategy while international enrollments fall.

Host events tailored to international students

Pre-COVID, recruiting international students required extensive travel to in-person events and other high-touch tactics to build relationships with students, families, and school counselors. But rather than press pause on international student recruitment, enrollment leaders should get creative with admissions counselors’ time and find new ways to share information with international students.

For example, the Six Colleges (Amherst, Bowdoin, Carleton, Pomona, Swarthmore, and Williams) are offering virtual information sessions specifically for international students. These sessions are offered at times appropriate for students located in key markets such as Asia, the Middle East, and South America. If your institution is offering similar sessions, consider holding multiple versions. International students are curious to learn how you may be implementing test-optional policies and how your deferred international students from fall 2019 will impact admissions for next year. A follow-up session might include current international students to answer questions about the academic community, support services, student activities, and other aspects of student life. And don’t forget to share recordings of your sessions with your international student pipeline to make information about your institution as accessible as possible.

Create interactive virtual content to keep international students connected to your institution

Beyond information sessions, think about other opportunities to engage your international student prospects and build affinity with your institution. Virtual tours have always been a great way to augment your international student recruitment strategy. But now they may be one of the only ways international students (and even students stateside) can experience your campus. Since the pandemic began, EAB Virtual Tour traffic has been three times higher than it was during the same time period in 2019.

If you have a virtual tour, make sure you include it prominently in your outreach to international students, in multiple places across your website (including the navigation bar, homepage, and admissions page), and on your social media pages. Your virtual tour is also a great way to keep international students who deferred interested in your institution, so make sure your virtual tour is included in outreach to those students.

Don’t lose track of pipeline management fundamentals

With the immediate future of international student enrollment uncertain, now is the time to ensure your domestic recruitment strategy is optimized—and that means finding new ways to find strong prospects. Most enrollment teams are faced with smaller inquiry pools for Fall 2021 and beyond due to closed campuses, missed high school visits and college fairs, and cancelled or delayed test dates that resulted in fewer names to purchase. The growing number of students choosing to apply test-optional has also forced enrollment leaders to double down on new strategies to identify right-fit students.

Both before and during the pandemic, our Enrollment Services partners have had success deploying parent-first marketing campaigns to engage parents and guardians before students inquire about their institution. Direct parent engagement is also an important way to drive increased conversions among existing inquiries. And it’s particularly valuable if you are primarily serving 18- to 22-year-olds whose parents are an integral part of the enrollment decision. 

Now is also the time to make it easier for stealth shoppers to learn about your school. Our recent survey of Gen Z students shows college websites are the top information source for college-bound students. Not only do websites provide an important first impression on students and parents, they can also help turn stealth applicants into known inquiries.

55%

of students are relying on “websites other than those of specific colleges” to research schools
of students are relying on “websites other than those of specific colleges” to research schools

In addition to optimizing your .edu website, enrollment teams should consider if this is the time to increase name buys from companies like Cappex. More and more students are relying on third-party websites to help them find right-fit colleges and universities. In our survey of more than 9,000 high school students last year, we found 55% of students are relying on “websites other than those of specific colleges” to research schools, a 24 percentage point increase from 2017.

International students and their families are facing a great deal of uncertainty right now. Will they be able to travel to the US next year? How will the results of the election impact student visas and Optional Practical Training program (OPT) work permits? What impact will the current group of deferred international students have on spaces in the fall 2021 class? Keep these questions in mind as you make improvements to your website and create new opportunities to engage international students.

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