International Recruitment: Today’s Issues and Opportunities

The number of colleges and universities that are recruiting internationally for the first time is on the rise. After all, having students from other countries on campus can boost diversity, infuse the curriculum with a global perspective, and possibly provide a new source of revenue for many schools. To explore the role international recruitment plays in college admissions today, we sought the insight of seasoned recruiters as well as college counselors from around the globe.

The United States can document a long-standing interest in attracting global talent to her shores, and many American colleges and universities boast a rich history of enrolling foreign nationals from a variety of countries who are studying alongside their students here. But now it seems the sheer volume of recruitment activity in the People’s Republic of China and the record numbers of Chinese students applying to study in the U.S. is coloring every conversation on the topic of international recruitment.

With a cautionary reminder from our experts that China is simply the country du jour—and that the current stream of Chinese students could change at a moment’s notice—we share with you insights on the trends, challenges, and lessons learned from international recruitment today in hopes that it can be applied to the enrollment management of tomorrow.

B.C. (Before China)

The flow of students to the United States for college or university study has always mirrored international economic and political trends. In the 1970s many students came from Iran and other oil-rich nations. When that began to taper off in the 1980s, large numbers of students from Malaysia and South America took their place. In the last decade, Asia has dominated the scene.

Eric Staab, dean of admission and financial aid at Kalamazoo College (Michigan), has been engaged in international admissions at selective liberal arts colleges for almost 25 years, and he says there have always been lots of applicants from China. “The difference is that they rarely got their visas before,” he says. “In the past, I always assumed that only half of our Chinese admits would make it to campus due to the U.S. Consulate denying their visas.”

Around 2007 the situation with China began to change, presumably because the U.S. State Department assessed that China’s economy was strong enough that their students were less likely to stay in the U.S. after completing their degrees. Indeed, the Chinese economy was heating up. The combination of a growing middle class with the ability to pay for college and fewer impediments from the U.S. government opened the floodgate. For the past five years China has remained the leading place of origin for students coming to the United States, with the number of students just under 275,000 in 2013-14, which is far more than the next-highest number of nearly 103,000 students from India.

While students from China make up almost one-third of all international undergraduates in the U.S., the 2014 edition of the annual “Open Doors” report from the Institute of International Education shows an overall growth of international students, with notable spikes across a wider range of countries that include Kuwait, Brazil, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia.

“I’ve been at this for 10 years, and the recruitment landscape changes constantly,” says Reon Sines-Sheaff, director of international admission at The College of Wooster (Ohio). “Ten years ago India was the largest sending country, and it has now been surpassed by China. But for several years the numbers from Saudi Arabia have grown fastest of all other sending countries, with double-digit percentage growth.”

Do You Have What It Takes?

Whether creating a new international recruiting program or expanding one that already exists, a campus needs to be acutely aware of the unique needs of international students and be prepared to address them.

“To begin with, you will need to have people on campus who understand what will need to happen in the visa process, who are ready to welcome the students to campus, and who will support them once they get there,” says Wooster’s Sines-Sheaff. “It’s a mistake to recruit the students and then try to figure out what to do with them once they get to campus.”

Of course, getting to this point requires a bit of introspection by the larger campus community, according to Joan Liu, university advisor at United World College of Southeast Asia (Singapore).

“Administrators will need to ask themselves a lot of questions, from whether they have the resources on campus to support the visa process and Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) to whether they can provide the necessary English support programs, including possibly ESL or EFL,” says Liu.

Kalamazoo’s Staab adds to the list of imperatives. “You must address the institution’s financial aid policy, tolerance for English proficiency, and ability to evaluate foreign transcripts (and who pays for it if that’s done out of house), along with the capacity to support the international students once on campus,” he says.

Once these questions have been answered, policies must be established and funding issues must be tackled—and this means more than merely increasing the annual admissions travel budget. For starters, there are staffing considerations.

“If you’re serious about international students and getting them on your campus, create a full-time position for this effort,” says Liu. “F-1 [visa] students have their own set of needs that differ from domestic students, and working with them will be a full-time job—not one that should be divided up piecemeal to admissions officers who already have other responsibilities.”

“Further, if you want a diverse group of students from around the world, one significant barrier to this goal will be cost,” says Liu. “Universities and colleges who have managed to build an inclusive, diverse, and truly global citizenry on their campuses have done so with the financial commitment on the part of their institution.”

With more than two decades of experience in the field of international admissions, as both an admissions officer and more recently with the Council of International Schools, consultant Tom LePere says, “For an international enrollment strategy to succeed, it is essential to have top-down support, with buy-in from the presidential and board level down to all key departments in the campus community.”

“These students will engage with almost every department on campus, and an institution must be positioned and funded not only to recruit international students but to retain them by ensuring they have a successful educational experience,” LePere says.

Take a Three-Year Pledge

At the risk of stating the obvious, overseas travel by a college representative is a must for international admissions. And seasoned recruiters say three years is the minimum period of time a college needs to commit to a new market before deciding if it is worthwhile.

Nicholas Forcier, associate director of international admission at Bennington College (Vermont), says, “On a number of occasions I’ve seen that the first year often results in no applications, the second year results in a couple with perhaps no matriculants, and the third year begins to produce students who enroll.”

During that time, the institution should cultivate relationships with individual secondary schools and other colleges that recruit abroad, as well as non-profit organizations affiliated with international recruiting.

Wooster’s Sines-Sheaff says traveling overseas and meeting counselors in person allows you to better understand a market, just as it does domestically. “It gives me the opportunity to learn about these schools and ask counselors what their students are looking for,” she says. “For example, rankings in China are a huge issue, and if you don’t understand why and how to answer the inevitable rankings question, you won’t get any applicants.”

Smith College (Massachusetts) has a long history of recruiting internationally, and establishing and maintaining partnerships has been key to their success, according to Karen Kristof, senior associate director of admissions.

“Our partners have been instrumental in helping us to expand our international enrollment, not only in quantity—from an average of 7-9 percent a few years ago to 15 percent today—but also in diversity,” she says.

Building partnerships has been important in developing Bennington’s brand recognition around the world, according to Forcier. “In addition to visiting high schools overseas, we have worked with EducationUSA, Davis United World Scholars Program, ANSA, and other non-profits like the Open A Door Foundation,” he says.

Bennington’s recent history seems to bear out this strategy: In 2010 when the college began recruiting abroad, there were 15 international freshman students on campus. International applications to Bennington have increased by 53.6 percent since then, and the 2014-15 class included 50 international students from across the globe.

Granted, this level of effort at establishing partnerships takes time and money. “Often, it means offering financial aid outside of an institution’s merit model in order to establish that the institution is willing to commit substantial resources toward enrolling students it is excited about,” says Forcier. But in Bennington’s experience, the academic quality of the international applicant pool is increasing and so is the ability of the students in the pool to contribute financially to their education.

“A process of strategic thinking, cultivating relationships, and building the college’s brand through repeated visits to the same cities and schools has helped us make substantial progress toward achieving a long-term goal of having an academically and financially viable applicant pool,” he says.

Travelling Solo or in Groups

Whether a recruiter travels alone, with a small cadre of other recruiters, or as part of group travel seems to depend largely on the recruiter’s level of experience as well as the institution’s name recognition abroad.

Jimm Crowder served as the director of international admissions at Macalester College (Minnesota) for more than three decades. Today he consults with colleges and universities as they work to build and maintain foreign student programs. He recommends that for the first couple of years, a recruiter travel with a group of other schools.

“Multiple tour options are available, all with appealing elements, including opportunities to create strong networks,” he says. In some cases it may be advisable for colleges to add on some individual travel before or after a group tour to meet institutional needs.

To some extent, group visits are becoming a trend for many high schools anyway, according to Crowder. “When I began my career in international admissions I would regularly go to prominent high schools abroad where I was the sole U.S. admissions professional to visit for the academic year,” he says. “Now secondary schools abroad often entertain hundreds of college reps during the admissions cycle, and they now limit their visit days to one or two per year, with a group of 10 to 15 institutions appearing in a college fair format.”

“Whatever the format,” stressed Crowder, “colleges new to international admissions can still greatly benefit from overseas visits.”

How Do You Sell Your School Overseas?

“It’s challenging enough to sell a small, liberal arts college education in the U.S., and doing this overseas is that much more complicated!” exclaims Kalamazoo’s Staab. “Persistence is the only solution.”

Bennington’s Forcier agrees that consistency is key. “Not being as widely recognized as a Harvard or Stanford is a challenge initially, but it is surprising how quickly a college can build brand recognition, particularly in small communities,” he says. While students are looking for top schools, he believes they also appreciate the personal touch and sense of community offered by recruiters during the college search.

“When Bennington shows up to a high school and meets a student in the spring of his or her junior year and then again in the fall of the senior year, the student develops a sense of familiarity not only with the recruiter, but with the institution,” says Forcier. “Our work representing the campus helps students to realize that while the surrounding area may be rural, our campus is vibrant and the people are engaging.”

While overcoming the allure of going to college in a big city can be a difficult task, Sarah H. Leavell, director of international admissions at Denison University (Ohio), finds that students’ families often like what they hear about Midwestern college towns. “The safety, friendliness, lower cost of living, and real sense of community that towns like Granville offer appeal to them,” she says.

Leavell also tries to give students a greater level of geographic understanding, showing them exactly how far Denison is from an airport as well as major urban areas they’ve hear about. “We are able to show students that they have access to vibrant, metropolitan areas nearby, while enjoying the safety and security of a close-knit residential campus,” she says.

Ffiona Rees, senior associate director of international admission at the University of California, Los Angeles and president of the Overseas Association for College Admission Counseling (OACAC), sees reaching international students as remarkably similar to recruiting domestic students. “Students and families want to know what mechanisms institutions have in place to support their population, be it first-generation, under-represented minority, low-income, or international students,” she says. “Each group wants to see the related student organizations and student services, and hear the success stories.”

“And just like with domestic students, the pipeline effect is critical,” says Rees. “Once the institution successfully enrolls and retains the students, more will follow.”

“On the flip side, if students come to your institution and have a negative experience, word can spread very quickly through the international community,” says Joe Giacalone, director of international admission and recruitment at Marist College (New York).

Independent consultant LePere suggests that when it comes to attracting, engaging, and enrolling a diverse pool of international students, colleges should not put all their eggs into any one basket. “Institutions should have a multifaceted strategy that includes a variety of approaches, including social and electronic media, individual and group recruitment travel, the use of alumni and current students, and regular outreach to counseling communities,” he says.

On this note, Wooster’s Sines-Sheaff encourages colleagues to remember their audience when creating international marketing materials. “Tell students what they need to know,” she says. “Don’t assume they know the basics, like where your school, city, or even state is located.”

Revenue vs. Diversity

At various points in time, colleges and universities have recruited mostly from one part of the world when the economic and political circumstances have supported it. “The tendency to rely on a few key markets at the expense of diversification mirrors our cultural tendency toward immediate gratification,” says LePere.

“If a university’s goal is diversifying the student body and providing an international type of experience to local students, you want people from Latvia, Ghana, Bangladesh, and so forth,” says Bill Kolb, coordinator of the United World College scholarship program at the University of Florida. “Unfortunately, very few students from most regions of the world are able to afford a U.S. university education.”

And when colleges and universities do not have the financial resources to fund a significant international scholarship program but the desire is to increase international enrollment, they have to go to the countries that have families who are able and willing to pay for a U.S. education. “Today, this is primarily China and India,” says Kolb.

International recruiters agree there are downsides to enrolling students primarily from one region of the world. “It’s a lot of work for a campus to integrate international students, and it’s even harder when there is a majority from one place,” says LaPere.

“It’s human nature to latch onto others like you. We Americans do it when we are abroad, so it’s no surprise that students who share a cultural or national background may naturally want to hang out with each other, study together, and speak in their native tongue rather than join in the conversation in English,” he says.

Liu points out that if a college wants to fulfill a philosophical mission of global understanding and “diplomacy and ambassadorship,” it’s difficult to do this if the majority of the campus’ international students are from China, since most who apply to the U.S. are generally affluent and upper class.

“The result in these cases is that the U.S. students gain a skewed view and understanding of China, since they only hear this one voice,” she says. In order to have a truly diverse student body and one that better reflects the world, Liu believes colleges must recruit students from various countries and from varied socio-economic strata.

And yet most international recruiters anticipate a continued growth of applications from China.

“All things being equal (and they never are), I expect no significant changes,” says Marjorie S. Smith, director of international student admission at the University of Denver (Colorado). “Unless the bottom drops out of the Chinese economy (always a possibility) or we suffer another huge terrorist attack, a massive public health threat hit, or another economic crisis here in the U.S. again soon, things should remain mostly steady.”

Where There’s a Will (There’s a Way)

When colleges recruit international students primarily for revenue, consultant Crowder anticipates longer term consequences. “There are issues on campus when there is a dominant culture, as well as the challenges of perpetuating that type of growth and income,” he says.

A wiser path, he advises, is to have a financial aid policy for international students that mirrors that of the institution’s domestic policy. In other words, colleges should take no-need students as needed but also have a budget that allows for grants equal to those given to American students.

The University of Florida has achieved one of the most diverse international student bodies at any institution, let alone a major public comprehensive research university. Kolb recalls that the university had a significant number of international students in the graduate programs, but very few at the undergraduate level during his 20-year tenure as director of admissions.

“Like many other universities, we were interested in internationalizing the experience of our students, especially when they could not study abroad due to financial or academic reasons,” says Kolb. “We became aware of the United World College (UWC) network of schools and saw the potential of bringing these students who were very good at sharing their culture to the University of Florida.”

Given that it would be politically unpopular to spend public funding on non-Floridian students, Kolb and his colleagues cobbled together a scholarship program from a variety of sources to fund UWC students. The result has been a steady and significant international undergraduate population at the University of Florida—not to mention more Gator graduates spread across the globe.

The Future of International Recruiting and Admissions

Membership in the Overseas Association for College Admission Counseling has grown by 58 percent in the last two years. This is reflective of both an increased number of students from across the globe, including American students, looking outside their home country for higher education as well as more universities looking to facilitate global education while off-setting declining budgets by enrolling more international students.

And there will continue to be competition among nations to attract more college students, including Americans, says LePere: “We are seeing the growth of programs delivered entirely in English at national universities across Europe, the Middle East, and even Asia.” These institutions not only attract nationals who want to study in an American-style setting and in English, but they also appeal to U.S. citizens, many of whom have grown up in a foreign nation, and want to stay abroad to earn their college degree.

Still, Liu believes the appeal of a U.S. college education will remain competitive on the world stage. “Education is the United States’ greatest export,” she says. “The expertise of faculty, the diversity of courses offered, the level of undergraduate research opportunities, the quality of the peer group, and a holistic admissions process greatly appeal to international families.”

“Last but not least, we must remember that for students who seek access to an English-speaking higher education system and who have significant financial barriers to accessing higher education, the U.S. is the only country in the world where opportunity and access to higher education does not depend on wealth,” says Liu.

According to EducationUSA, there are 183 institutions in the U.S. that offer need-based financial aid for extremely talented students coming from overseas. “International students cannot find the same opportunities in the UK, Canada, or Australia, which are the other countries that offer higher education in English and that also recruit large numbers of international students,” Liu says.

Crowder agrees with Liu’s optimism. Having devoted his entire career to the field of international admissions and lived through the gentle ups and downs of the market for the past 25 years, he remains positive about the future. “Despite the significant growth in students going to other ‘receiver nations’ like the UK, Germany, Canada, Australia, and several others, the number of international students hoping to matriculate at U.S. colleges and universities is growing,” he says. “The surge of the China and India markets and growth in countries like Vietnam, Turkey, Brazil, and others bodes well for the future. There are more places for students, more incentives to attract students, and more educational options for them to pursue.”

Crowder concludes, “If a college is prepared to recruit internationally and support those students on campus, success is almost certainly guaranteed.”

Sidebar: Challenges in International Recruiting

Even when they also exist elsewhere, most of the challenges facing today’s international recruiters are discussed in the context of Asia—and more specifically, as it relates to working with Chinese students.

A Rank-Centric Outlook

The Chinese expect any institution to have a very high profile and a world-class reputation, and this stems from the way their education system is set up, explains David McCauley, currently the director of college counseling at Berkshire School (Massachusetts). Prior to this position, McCauley lived and worked in China, including at Beijing No. 4 High School, one of the most selective and prestigious schools in all of China.

Gaining admission to colleges in China is based on a series of test scores that begin early in a child’s education. Ultimately, one test score, the Gaekao, determines the university you get into. “The higher the score, the better the university you get into,” explains McCauley.

This idea of every university being ranked (and everyone knowing the ranking) is pervasive. This means that U.S. colleges that aren’t “Tier 1” or a household name must prove their value by other means.

Similarly, Chinese students and families find it very difficult to understand the holistic process of U.S. college admissions. “In all my years in Beijing, I worked with very few families who were less rank focused,” says McCauley. “In some cases, the parents worked for foreign countries and traveled outside of the PRC [People’s Republic of China] regularly, and they were interested in finding a better fit for their student.”

“In other cases, the students were either very comfortable with themselves or desperate to get out of China, so they would look at a variety of schools,” he says.

Forged or Falsified Application Materials

The über competitive nature of college admissions in China leads families and school officials to do “whatever it takes” to make sure their child progresses, explains McCauley.

A report by the college search service Zinch estimates, based on their survey of students who had applied to foreign colleges, that 90 percent of students have submitted false recommendation letters, 70 percent had other people write their personal essays, and half of them submitted forged high school transcripts.

Karen Kristof, senior associate director of admissions at Smith College (Massachusetts), says she has been warned about the credentials coming out of Asia by U.S. counselors who live and work there. “They say you really can’t trust anyone, anywhere. You hear about fake community service trips, adults writing essays for students, and more.”

“It’s a such a change from how I was originally trained to look at applications—with an open heart,” she says. “But with international applications, I have to go into it with a skeptic’s mind.”

The Use of Agents

Agents are not a recent addition to international recruitment; in reality they have been a part of the scene for a long time in various parts of the world. However, the huge growth in the volume of students coming from China—and the fact that agents are an inherent part of the process in China—has brought the topic front and center in recent years. Again, this has its roots in Chinese culture and their system of promotion in education.

“It begins with the fact that getting into the top universities in China is incredibly difficult, and most families start grooming their students from a very young age,” says McCauley. “Kids are tracked and vetted by the schools, so parents do what they can—from extra tutoring and test preparation to offering payoffs and favors.”

Add to this the huge void in college counseling. “Families are simply looking for someone who can give them advice and answers,” he says, “and this is compounded by the fact that the Chinese believe that anything free has no value—including my advice as the school’s college counselor!”

“It is a matter of culture,” explains consultant Jimm Crowder, former director of international admissions at Macalester College (Minnesota). “Parents and teachers want to do the best for their kids, and they trust people from their own culture to help their children gain admission to a college.”

From the age of 13, Chinese students will typically go to school, come home and eat dinner, and then begin to study (or memorize) the SAT or TOEFL exams. “Having someone work with you, on your behalf, is a cultural expectation,” Crowder says. “The agent is seen as an extended member of the family in China.”

The NACAC Assembly addressed the issue of agents in 2013 by adopting new rules to accommodate the use of commissioned agents in recruiting international students and publishing guidelines that address the issues of accountability, integrity, and transparency for colleges and universities.

“People talk more about this in China, but agents are a problem elsewhere,” confirms Smith’s Kristof, who believes this is happening more in Vietnam as well as in India, where a strong consultant culture exists. “As people get more affluent, it seems like they are more likely to be exploited,” she says.

Despite its prevalence in many countries and the fact that virtually all professional admissions organizations are debating the “agent” issue, Crowder warns colleges that “buyer beware.” He says, “When an agent is involved, the college has to ask the questions: Will the students be academically prepared? Will they assimilate into the campus community? Is their financial pledge sound?”

Admitted Students Lacking Academic Preparation

Even when the required TOEFL score is quite high, many international students often find reading, writing, and conversing in English to be a challenge.

“At Smith, we have found that even our strongest Chinese students, who are brilliant at tests, find the way we do things—from class discussions to writing response papers to full length research papers—to be extremely challenging for them,” explains Kristof.

As such, some first-year seminars cater to students who might not have English as a first language, and there is a real culture of encouraging all students to use the Writing Center.

To better work with the large number of Chinese students enrolling at the University of Denver (Colorado), the institution’s English proficiency policy has experienced a complete metamorphosis in recent years, according to Marjorie S. Smith, director of international student admission. Regardless of their standardized test scores required for admission, international students are now retested with Denver’s own assessment of English proficiency when they arrive on campus to determine whether they should be required to enroll full-time in the University’s English Language Center before beginning their degree program.