International Affairs: Survival Kit for Small and Medium-Sized Universities and Colleges

By Alex Parnia

The future looks very bleak for many small and medium-sized colleges and universities in the U.S. According to a report published in Inside Higher Education, the high school graduation rate is expected to drop over the next seven years, and the numbers are aggravated by up to 4.5 million fewer babies being born since the financial crisis of 2008.
U.S. colleges and universities can no longer meet their operational budgets and can finance expansion only by continuing to increase tuition, which is not sustainable. Furthermore, colleges and universities have poured millions of dollars into marketing and advertising in the past 15 years, which has fueled massive competition to attract domestic students; these initiatives have resulted in stiff competition for market share in different regions of the country. Adding insult to injury, Clayton Christensen, the Harvard guru on disruptive innovation, predicts that 50% of American colleges and universities will close within the next 10 years. Amid all the gloom and doom, though, there is one strategic opportunity for small to medium-sized universities: incorporating carefully designed international student recruitment into the overall recruitment plan for the next five to seven years.

The landscape of international recruitment has been changing rapidly. Up until 15 years ago, there was a steady stream of international students to the U.S., meaning that some small and medium-sized universities and colleges were able to attract international students to their campuses. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the United Kingdom and Australia made strategic forays into international recruitment. In 2000, the percentage of international students in these countries stood at 5% of total higher education students. Today, both nations have reached a 20% figure and are probably at their limits. In August 2018, the United Kingdom government decided to include international students in overall immigration numbers to slow down the intake of international students. In the meantime, Canada has emerged as the next favorable destination for international students, and recent comments from the Trump administration have accelerated the rate of international students heading to Canada by scaring students away from the U.S. Most colleges and universities in Canada are bursting at the seams with international students; therefore, sooner rather than later, the pace of international students choosing to study in Canada will slow.

As a result, the U.S. remains an attractive destination for international students, and the ratio of international students in higher education remains at about 5%. However, there is one new hurdle for U.S. colleges and universities: the emergence of multinational companies that have entered into the international student recruitment market in the U.S. These multinationals, such as Kaplan, Navitas, Shorelight and INTO, and a few other smaller firms are now guiding many students toward attending large public, private, and nonprofit universities. These companies are not interested in working with small to medium-sized liberal arts universities, but they have certainly become a major force in recruiting students on a large scale. This new environment has reached a tipping point in market share, which makes it more difficult for small and medium-sized universities and colleges to recruit directly on their own given their limited resources. A series of articles in Inside Higher Education revealed a massive infusion of commissions by these corporate recruitment companies, which makes it almost impossible for any small to medium-sized university to mount and sustain long-term international recruitment efforts and compete effectively.

In addition, international recruitment remains a treacherous road. Stories abound of university presidents traveling overseas and coming back empty-handed. There are plenty of land mines, with many fly-by-night agents and bad apples in the mix of overseas recruiting agencies. Consequently, international recruitment requires seasoned staff, who come with expensive price tags. That’s why it is realistically almost impossible for any small to medium-sized college or university to put together an international recruitment team. In addition, international recruitment requires a substantial upfront investment in marketing, which is impossible to stage. Several colleges coming together to form a recruitment partnership is an idea that faces the same obstacles as the individual universities, such as a lack of expertise, limited resources and the massive upfront marketing and other investments that are required to recruit in more than 100 attractive international markets.

Therefore, the solution lies in forming partnerships with reputable private-sector companies with strong track records that specialize in recruiting for small to medium-sized colleges. There are only a handful of these companies, and they must be vetted and selected carefully to make sure they are the right fit for a specific institution. It is very important that colleges and universities consider forming quality recruitment partnerships with private international companies, given that such partnerships can generate new revenue streams and contribute to campus diversity.

Forming a partnership is the first of many steps that must be taken to internationalize a campus. It is a strategy that requires careful planning; institutions must work closely with the partnering entity to outline successful strategies for bringing international students to campus and orienting them to campus life. The partnership development is the foundation for determining how to serve the international students while also benefiting the host higher education institution. Though not a panacea for the ills of higher education, small to medium-sized American colleges and universities must consider international recruitment as part of their overall strategy for a sustainable future.

Alex Parnia is the executive chairman of Global Education Access, LLC. He previously served as president of EC Higher Education from 2016 to 2018. He was president at Pacific Oaks College & Children’s School from 2012-2015. He also served as provost of Nichols College and executive vice president at Cambridge College.

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