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Obstacles to international enrollment beyond the evening news

The shaky future of international recruiting in China

February 27, 2018

Over the past decade U.S. and Canadian institutions have experienced growth in their international student populations. These students play an important role in supporting both revenue growth and internationalization on most campuses. Unfortunately, once stable pipelines for enrolling international students are now at risk.

Perceptions of the United States abroad threatens once steady recruiting pipelines

Media coverage of immigration debates in Washington and incidents of violence against immigrants in the United States contribute to a climate that many prospective international students find unwelcoming. Confidence in the quality of U.S. higher education remains strong in key international markets, but prospective students report that the political climate of the United States will impact their decision to study abroad.

Many institutions work to highlight the safe, welcoming environments they provide, but this does little to address long-term threats to international enrollment such as demographic shifts and declines in the professional value of North American degrees amongst employers in reliable source markets.

All of Your Eggs in an Increasingly Risky Basket

The vast majority of international students studying in the United States and Canada come from a handful of source markets—primarily China. This kind of source-market concentration is not surprising. International recruiting is expensive and labor intensive. Focusing on a handful of high-potential markets is often the only sustainable approach. China’s strong economic growth and strict regulations on family size made it an ideal source market for resource strapped colleges and universities, and Chinese families looked to North American institutions to prepare their children for an increasingly complex Chinese job market. Furthermore, a single child’s educational needs could be supported by at least two generations of accumulated wealth.

Unfortunately, China is no longer as ideal a market for recruiting students. China will experience significant demographic decline over the next decade, reducing the number of viable prospects. In addition, China continues to position itself as a competitor destination for international students—enrolling more Chinese students domestically and attracting 440,000 foreign students to China in 2016.

A changing job market at home

Once commonly referred to as ‘sea turtles’ due to their habit of returning home from abroad after graduation, Chinese students typically pursue education abroad to improve their access to lucrative careers upon returning to China. Unfortunately, the income gap between U.S. and domestic degrees in China is closing.

Chinese students are now returning home to a much less welcoming job market, meaning institutions that rely on Chinese enrollments may struggle to articulate a clear value proposition to prospective students for the foreseeable future. More broadly, institutions will need to resource efforts to develop secondary markets to ensure that their campuses remain globally connected and meet international tuition revenue goals.

We surveyed 2,000+ students from 150 countries about studying in the U.S. Here’s what they told us.

Our experts spoke to prospective students across the globe regarding their interest in studying in the United States.For key findings and a breakdown of which countries have had the greatest decrease in enrollment interest, download the full report.

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