18 January 2021
From selling a campus, to selling a country

An enrollment crisis in higher education has been looming for a long-time: and now it’s becoming clear that the Coronavirus pandemic has provided the catalyst. 

There is no stability in any area of enrollment, and with good reason. The United States continues to see the largest numbers of coronavirus cases in the world, huge disparities between states on coronavirus restrictions and a great deal of instability. Students are, naturally, reluctant to enroll or transfer right now. The instruction to ‘stay put’ has resonated. 

And if students do decide to move, there is no guarantee for their safety. “I don’t trust my university to provide what we need to stay safe,” said one Chronicle reader. They might have been right – as cases soared on campus, and the shockwaves of student mass-migration were felt across the country. 

And all of this is putting off domestic students: imagine how it looks from the outside. Combined with well-documented effects of increasing political tensions, increasing hostility towards immigrants, chaotic policy on international students and deepening divides across America – young people from the rest of the world just aren’t interested. 

Higher education has always counted on the United States’ reputation as a bastion of international study, the culture that students can expect and – above all – the opportunity that is available to them. 

But now, with that reputation tainted, the onus is on higher Education to win back students from overseas.

How does the sector do this? It’s a bleak picture but there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The higher education community must lean on technology to boost accessibility for international students – and the good news is, this transformation has already begun, 

We shouldn’t undo the positive effects of going online. There’s an urgency to get back to campus from much of the sector. In-person teaching is, of course, more valuable for most students, and represents better value. But that move back to in-person shouldn’t get in the way of acknowledging the incredible developments that have taken place during a difficult period: developments in online teaching and learning, mentorship and pastoral care, even socializing.

Where we are particularly concerned is pre-enrollment: the move to virtual campus tours, virtual Open Houses, online orientation days. These must not be cancelled, even as they become possible in-person. The ability to reach and connect with a vastly higher number of students, and the sort of students who would never be able to get to campus in person. 

In 2007, students professed the power of campus tours and in-person visits as more impactful to their decision making than any other factor. We suggest that this isn’t because in-person is intrinsically better, but because it is better resourced by colleges. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: the in-person provision is better, so students say they trust in-person more, and so it gets more funding and more attention. 

But, done correctly, your virtual offering can be just as impactful for students and – more importantly – accessible for international students. Abandoning it now would do those students who will benefit from it a huge disservice. 

Recognize the new battleground. Historically, colleges have had the constant flow of international students coming into the United States to fight over. But now, that flow is drying out. The battle is not to win over international students to your college, it is to win international students back to the country. 

More and more students are opting for Australia, the United Kingdom, or Canada – the fastest growing international market of all

There’s also an increasing number of would-be international students that are abandoning their plans. If your strategy relies on crossing your fingers and hoping this is a ‘2020 effect’, or crossing your fingers and awaiting the result of the election – you could be disappointed.

The traditional sources of international students, like China and India, are rapidly ramping up their own higher education offerings. India has launched an enormous education policy reform that will see new universities, competition between providers, and satellite campuses for major global brands. 

With years of experience selling a campus, how do you sell a country? The answer is by coming together. This is one of the reasons that Unibuddy and Study in the USA have partnered with 15 colleges around the US to launch a new platform that showcases international students who have already made the trip, and allows prospective students to chat to them and ask them about their experiences. 

It is joint initiatives between colleges that are proving most impactful. Look at the success of NAFSA as a voice for international students, an organization that is more important now than ever. There has never been a better time to look to those institutions that would traditionally be your competitors, and see if there are opportunities to work together – and win students back to the country, before winning them on to your campus. 

Give international students a voice. Far and away, this is the most important piece of advice for winning back international students. We can sometimes talk about international students as if they are a homogenous group – perhaps we’re even guilty of it in this article – but nothing could be further from the truth. Just like your domestic students, they face individual challenges, blockers and motivations – all of which you must identify and address. 

Many colleges have seen a sharp fall in international enrollment – but there are still international students on campus. It’s not enough to get students in – you must dedicate time and resource to the international student experience once they arrive. That means reducing attrition, increasing satisfaction and ensuring representation. 

And the international students who are on campus will be informing the students who are not yet, through social media, online reviews, vlogs. First-hand experiences are now rated as one of the top factors for international student decision making. 

The only way to improve the international student experience is through listening to your international students, and empowering them to share their experiences with you. 

Nothing counteracts a bad experience. The priority for higher education institutions now should be ensuring that the international students that are already on campus are getting a high quality higher education experience. 

Once you’ve achieved that, by amplifying their stories you can enable them to support and reassure the next cohort. 


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