US International Higher Education

Big Data, Small Data Series: Making Informed International Student Enrollment Management Decisions

“Data, data everywhere but not any time to think”

Much like this allegorical reference to being adrift in the ocean but not able to drink, these days it’s hard not only to be overwhelmed by the amount of data we see in our lives each day, but also not having time to think about what it all means. From our social media news feeds, to texts from friends and family, to endless phone calls and email inboxes that never seem to empty, how do we even get out of bed in the morning? As the student recruitment landscape continues to change it is important to focus on institutional data reports, external student surveys and in depth studies of global student mobility, and not rely simply on anecdotal stories.

Over the next three months we will provide some helpful insights into what data matters, where to find relevant sources, and how to apply what you learn to your institution’s overall strategic international enrollment management plans. Starting this month with small data we look at various institutional resources colleges and universities can leverage to make more informed student recruitment decisions. As small data is defined as “being about people” and designed to find causation, let’s begin with what we can find out about our students.

Know your students

For purposes of these articles, small data is defined as the assessment of your college’s interactions with the full lifecycle of its students, from prospective to alumni. Beginning with the swarm of activity typically accompanying orientation week on college campuses, international admissions staff have a number of opportunities to consider for upcoming semesters.

As offices routinely find themselves with little time for data analysis, one or more of these areas below can be missed. Some of these data sets did not exist when I started in admissions twenty five years ago, but are now critical to evaluating how well we do and where there is room for improvement. To get at what our students are thinking, let’s break down the potential data-mining opportunities into three categories:

1.  Prospective to Enrolling Student Information

  • Non-enrolling student survey – why did students decide not to come (e.g. visa denials, financial, better offer, family)? Domestic admission offices have been using these for years, are you doing something similar internationally?
  • New student focus groups – why they chose your school, what were biggest pluses and minuses about the college, gaps in communication, what could have been done differently, rating importance of various tools used (website, social media, in-person events, college search profiles, live chat, emails, etc.). Are you tapping into your new students either during or shortly after orientation to capture this timely data?


2.  Online/Digital Media Effectiveness

  • Website assessment – Do you regularly review your Google Analytics to assess the prospective student journey on your site? Are your keywords, metatags, search functionality, landing pages for events/campaigns, etc. accurate? Where is your traffic coming from globally? Where do you lose visitors to your international admissions site (on which pages)?
  • Social media strategy – How frequently do you review your analytics from Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram accounts? Do you run ad campaigns connected with in-person, online events? How often are you reviewing post effectiveness, response to posts/questions, timing of posts, where your social site visitors are from?
  • Communication flow messaging – Do you update/review your emails from first email contact to pre-arrival message series annually? What are your initial response rates like? Are your open rates and CTRs where they should be? Are you working toward CRM-dependent, segmented messaging streams, or running every prospect through the same series of messages? Do you have country level, study level, academic program specific messaging?


3.  Post-Enrollment Student Attitudes

  • Ongoing retention efforts – Does your college do student satisfaction surveys (from your retention office)? Have you accessed this survey information? Can you add international student questions to the list, asking academic and social related concerns that address potential areas for improvements? Do students have a very different picture of what your college would be before they arrived, compared to the realities of the day-to-day challenges they face now?
  • Alumni exit interviews – If your institution’s alumni office doesn’t do this, you may want to trial it with your graduating international students each semester. Bring them in, feed them pizza, and ask if they feel prepared for life after their studies and why. Ask how they’ve changed and what their next steps are (e.g. OPT, further study, returning home, travel, etc.).

With these various data sources, you can begin building a comprehensive picture of the student journey at your institution. More importantly, you will be equipped to make the changes needed to improve your office’s and institution’s effectiveness internationally.

Refine internal operations

Once these small data operations have been analyzed, take the time needed to thread the different elements together into a tapestry that provides you with a road map moving forward. Some of these areas that will need addressing will be beyond your own office’s mandate, but do not let that be a hindrance to making progress. Even though your office may only have responsibility for bringing international students in, there will be repercussions if their on-campus experiences don’t match the promises made during the recruitment process.

  • International student recruitment plan – Are there internal process changes needed for website alterations, social media posting, comm flow messaging, and/or CRM usability?
  • Orientation programming – What are arrival/pick-up policies, length of program, content and format, breaks/food? Do new student focus groups’ feedback suggest changes needed?
  • Residence life/housing office policies and procedures – Do you have early move-in dates, year-round housing options, food service changes (e.g. hours of operation during Ramadan), etc.?
  • Career Services/professional development office services – Are there sessions specifically for international students or containing international content (e.g. data on internships for international students, CPT/OPT information)?

Of course, many of the proposed data-informed changes that require action beyond your office are the hardest to implement as they may not be on the radar of those other offices (orientation, advising, residence life, career services, alumni). Yet those are the relationships that must be maintained and nurtured for long-term holistic change to happen. The added benefit of including these other offices in your data-mining exercises, when done with your VP or Dean’s backing, is to raise the profile of international students on campus.

Inform Return on Investment decisions

So, where should your focus be? Aside from the changes to your website, social media channels, and communication flow messaging mentioned earlier, your budget, staff, and student workers’ time, and where you invest those resources, represents a significant opportunity to use data to support required changes.

With your budget, are you being asked to do more with less? Or do you have a zero-sum budget each year? Is there support for new modeling on how your budget is determined, perhaps exploring tuition revenue-based budgeting with a cost per student model? Financial data on the net tuition revenue generated (minus scholarships) by your recruitment plans can be helpful in establishing a baseline for your work moving forward.

There may very well be changes needed to your recruitment plans because certain markets seem to be drying up (e.g. losing Saudi scholarship students, no more Brazilian Scientific Mobility students, ESL program in trouble, etc.), while others experiencing sudden growth deserve more attention. What new markets should you begin to explore? More on this topic next month.

Do you need to review your marketing material? Are you using print copies for recruitment travel? Are you still mailing brochures? Are you translating any of that admissions content into languages where you are focusing recruitment activities? Are translations available on your website in digital format for downloading? Do any new markets need materials developed? What will the costs be for any of these new activities?

With your vendor relationships, are there mechanisms in place to evaluate the success they bring to your efforts? Hotcourses offers clients the Enrollment Matcher Tool (EMT) as clear way to match your applied, admitted, and/or enrolled students against the Hotcourses database. This EMT can show you what percentage of your students connected with Hotcourses in their journey to enrolling at your institution. On a personal note, the use of this tool confirmed at one of my previous colleges that 6.5% of our enrolled students had contact with Hotcourses before enrolling. That result helped me make an informed, data-based decision on whether to renew with Hotcourses at that time. If your CRM doesn’t allow you to track contacts by initial, secondary, or tertiary sources, the question becomes how are you defining success with your vendors, particularly on the lead generation, lead nurturing side?

Naturally, the goal in successfully implementing a data-based international student enrollment management strategy should naturally extend beyond knowing how, and what, keeps students coming to, and staying at, your institution. Next month, we’ll dive into available external student behavior/preference data sources that can point you to the changes you can make to improve your chances of attracting students you are not currently reaching effectively.

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Big Data, Small Data Series: Making Informed International Student Enrolment Management Decisions

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