Big Data, Small Data Series: How International Student Surveys Can Inform International Student Recruitment Decisions
Hardly a semester goes by without some new report or survey examining student behavior trends and the expectations that they have regarding the college admissions process. Domestically, Ruffalo Noel Levitz has produced their annual E-Expectations Report for years. On the international front, Intead/FPP-Edu Media, Hotcourses Group and others have surveyed international students over the years as well. Each of these efforts can have nuggets of value that can be applied to your international student recruitment strategy.
But let’s look at why this information matters and how to put our long-term plans in an increasingly global context. Some of these surveys only look at students considering the U.S. as their study destination. While that can be of value if considering students in a vacuum that are only looking at U.S. colleges and universities, the realities on the ground are that students have many options when studying abroad. How do globally-mobile students view the United States compared to Canada, UK, Australia, and New Zealand? Where does the U.S. come ahead of the pack and where are we lagging?
Know Your Audience
We discussed last month the importance of knowing your home audience i.e. how your prospective student to alumni lifecycle functions at your institution and how your students respond to your existing strategies. This internal knowledge sets a firm foundation for maintaining what you have, and perhaps improving slightly. But how about the students that may be considering the U.S. as well as one or two other destination countries for their post-secondary study? Does your message resonate with them?
Since 2012, IDP has annually conducted a Student Buyer Behavior Survey that explores changes in perceptions and expectations of popular English language study destinations including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and here in the U.S. A key focus of the study examines drivers of student mobility including safety, affordability, graduate employment opportunities, student visa policies and quality of education. What is most revealing is that while the U.S. still comes out on top for quality of education, it is last in safety (by a good margin), affordability, and welcoming visa requirements. Canada leads in four of the five categories.
This is the market intelligence that can and should inform how you position your institution toward overseas audiences, from students, their parents, college counselors, and agents/advisers. How you respond to these themes to counter the negative perceptions, that exist in your messaging, on your website, and in your profiles, matters! When your potential audience is considering multiple destinations for study, not only your domestic competition, you need to be aware of that impact on your message.
Live Where Your Audience Lives
While knowing your audience is key and developing messaging accordingly is a necessary step, it means nothing if your college doesn’t have a presence on platforms where your future students are spending their time. So where do students find out their initial information about colleges online? Most surveys these days include this kind of question in what they ask, so the good news is these answers are out there, and recently, the answers are consistent. Hotcourses International Student Survey from 2018, reinforces the idea (in figure 12) that of the online channels students use most, only two are directly controlled by institutions (college websites #2 and institutional social media #5). On the other hand, search engines (#1), college search sites (#3), university ranking sites (#4), and student blogs/forums (#6) can be influenced by what your college does only if you invest in profiles online, ad spends, and human capital to engage on student discussion sites.
Keeping in mind what you can control directly, specifically your institutional website, make certain you get your messaging right, remembering what globally-mobile students believe is true. Any international admissions professional in the field for more than one admissions cycle can attest to the stealth applicant phenomenon. Think about all the prospective students who visit your institutional website that never get to the point of applying, let alone reaching out to contact your institution. What turns them off? Do you not address their concerns (safety, affordability, visas, etc.)?
Listen, Listen, Listen
To get the attention of prospective international students, make them feel like your institution understands their needs. I know, you’re thinking how do we listen to students who don’t talk to us first? In the strictest sense, do your homework on what students want to know early on before they decide to invest too much of their time in getting to know your institution better, by applying or even simply inquiring. As the 2018 Hotcourses Student Survey reveals, the top four most valuable content areas about your college (in figure 13) students seek are, in order of value, academic programs, scholarships/funding, entry requirements, and costs.
Even though U.S. colleges pride themselves on the flexibility of our undergraduate system allowing students to be undecided initially, to change majors, and even double major, international students decide early in their secondary school (if not earlier) what they and/or their parents want them to study. So, making certain your academic offerings are front and center for international students to view is key. And, yes, the issues of scholarships and costs make a difference. Survey after survey reveals that costs are the single largest factor that stops a student from moving forward in the process. If you are not accurately explaining both, and how the total cost per year, everything included, may not be the final actual cost to a student and their family due to possible scholarships opportunities, you are failing to address this important concern. Lastly, we all know that the U.S. college admissions process can be confusing compared to any other country on the planet, so as much as is humanly possible, make sure the criteria you use at your institution are clearly spelled out for international audiences.
Ideally, for any international student enrollment management plan to move to the next level, the more detailed information you have beyond broad global trends and perceptions is to get to regional and country-level student data in the areas your institution prioritizes in recruitment. For my money, one of the best free resources for U.S. colleges and universities remains EducationUSA. Since 2012, this U.S. Department of State network of advising centers in 170 countries has produced the EducationUSA Global Guide. Released each summer, the Global Guide provides global and regional trends from the network’s advisers and 13 REACs (regional educational advising coordinators). This information, along with the IIE Open Doors Report and the Department of Homeland Security’s SEVIS by the Numbers (which we’ll cover next month), are some of the most valuable tools available to international admissions staff to do the research they need.
Another country-level resource EducationUSA provides are its student mobility country fact sheets. These fact sheets give some excellent data beyond baseline Open Doors numbers to include preferred academic majors, levels of study, as well as education system information.
At Hotcourses, one of the many products available to clients includes custom Insights. For the twelve markets in which Hotcourses operates natively-hosted university profiles, institutions can access real-time data on student preferences, behaviors, and academic interests. One example of how Insights can provide useful country/region level data on what college content students most seek out in different markets. Additionally, the Insights tool can provide country/region level, real-time data on what academic subjects students are seeking.
If your institution is looking for data to inform your international student enrollment management strategy, there are many resources available. The challenge will be to identify the ones that make sense for your college to utilize and to commit the time and budget needed to implement new, region and country-specific recruitment efforts. Good luck!
About Hotcourses Group
Hotcourses Group offers the leading education marketing and enrollment solutions in the industry. We provide over 47 million prospective international students annually with unique online tools and informative content, from the early stages of research, right the way through to securing a place at an institution. Our partner institutions benefit from market intelligence to help them better understand prospective students and domestic and international student trends. We then provide platforms for them to influence and connect with prospective students, all the way through to enrollment.
About IDP Education
IDP is a global leader in international education. We help international students study in English-speaking countries. Our success comes from connecting students with the right course at the right institution in the right country. We’ve been operating for almost 50 years, creating a network of opportunity with offices in more than 30 countries.