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Think twice before relying on international students to solve online enrollment challenges

January 14, 2019

As domestic enrollments stagnate or decline across higher ed, continuing education leaders’ interest in looking abroad for new online audiences continues to grow. However, complex enrollment barriers and increasing competition abroad make this population challenging to recruit, enroll, and serve.

International online enrollments remain flat, while competition abroad grows

Competition for international students has increased as more options exist to study at local institutions, allowing students to earn recognized degrees on accessible campuses. For example, the three regions in the graph below display an increase of at least 10 percent in the portion of students who choose to stay in their region for a postsecondary credential.

In the Asian market, the growing competition is clear. For example, over 2,600 English-taught academic programs exist throughout Asia. Additionally, the competition spans countries: 440,000 international students attend Chinese institutions; and Malaysia hopes to reach 250,000 international students by 2025. Growing competition forces institutions abroad to aggressively compete for students, making it even more difficult for U.S. institutions to permeate this highly-saturated market.

Compounding this is the fact that few international students choose to pursue online education. Since 2012, the number of international online students has remained flat, at less than 5% of total international students studying in the U.S.

Legal barriers and internet speed requirements limit countries for recruitment

Legislation in other countries may prohibit or discourage enrollment in online courses, or those delivered by international institutions, and some countries limit access to web content from the U.S. For example, of the top 25 universities enrolling international students, 17 had admissions content blocked within China.

Higher speeds are typically concentrated in cities where a variety of education options already exist for students to choose from. Further, countries must meet internet speed requirements of 4 Mbps to stream video content and give students the opportunity to participate in video conferences. However, to stream high-quality content countries must meet internet speed requirements of 10 Mbps or greater. At this speed, students can access course content in HD and continue uninterrupted during times of slow internet speed.

High tuition and English proficiency requirements further shrink recruitment pool

Expensive online degree programs often limit access to wealthy students. Countries with a high-income per capita offer institutions the best potential to find audiences able to afford full program tuition, but many of these students can also choose among in-person programs closer to home. Hoping to offset shrinking tuition revenue from domestic students by recruiting internationally, institutions likely lack the will or ability to offer significant subsidies to international students.

To ensure that students succeed in online courses, programs must establish a minimum required level of English proficiency for students. However, English language proficiency requirements provide an additional cost and time barrier to international students. Conversely, if an institution translates courses, costs could be prohibitively high and may make revenue generation from online international enrollment unlikely.

EAB analysis of sources available upon request

Looking for more information about adult student segments to recruit to your online programs?

Check out the recent research from the COE Forum on credentials for an unpredictable market.

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