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Challenge or Opportunity? 2021 International student marketing for the USA

The impact of COVID-19 on international students and the intake of traditional destination countries cannot be understated. The higher education heavyweights have all seen interest and demand fluctuate wildly as COVID-19 infections, lockdowns, travel restrictions and changes to how education is delivered have taken hold.

Even within this context, the impact on the U.S. as a destination country is unique. America’s borders may be open to international students, but only if their classes are taught at least partially in-person. Current and new students whose courses are moved online, even if the campuses are open, are not able to enter or remain in the country. This policy has placed some of America’s most prestigious schools, including Harvard, in a dilemma. The delivery of courses varies dramatically between states and institutions and the status of student visas has repeatedly been called into question, the latest proposed policy changes by the DHS suggesting they will become yet more hostile to international students and their needs. Indeed, even the rhetoric of the current president could be perceived as sending a message that international students are no longer welcome in America.

These factors have all had an effect. Taking the trends in traffic on IDP Connect websites since January 2020, depicted in the graph below, we can see that while Australia, Canada and the UK all saw a significant drop in traffic from February–when the impact of the pandemic, lockdowns and related restrictions came into force– America saw no dramatic drop but instead a slower, more gradual, and steady decline in interest.

Graph: Destination market demand from international students by volume from January 1st, 2020 to October 11th, 2020 (all study levels)

While the other three destination countries have seen interest swiftly recover either to pre-COVID levels, or in the case of the UK and Australia, exceeding them– the U.S. has yet to show any such rise in traffic.

Indeed, interest in America as a study destination continued to creep downwards over June, July and August while its competitor destinations saw their traffic skyrocket. As a result, America’s failure to rebound from the decrease in traffic at the onset of COVID-19 and take advantage of the pent-up student demand now being seen across our sites is leaving the U.S. further and further behind other destination countries.

Current trends contextualized by historic data

America’s current trends in international student interest are particularly worrisome when contextualized within a “typical” recruitment cycle. If we consider the traffic for US institutions in 2019, pictured in the demand volume graph below, we can see where the U.S. would expect to see peaks and troughs in traffic for 2020.

Graph: US demand from international students from January 1st, 2019 to December 31st, 2019

For the U.S., traffic is typically highest in January but quickly begins to decline over February and March before bottoming out over the Spring and Summer. Interest then starts to return over August before reaching a second, slightly lower but more extended peak in traffic over September and October, which again quickly declines over November and December.

Based on the trends from last year, there should have been an increase in interest from international students over August and September. However, our data show that while Australia, Canada, and the UK have all seen an increase in interest over this period, there has not been a climb in the levels of interest in America.

Challenges for the US market

International student recruitment is particularly challenging for US institutions. The rate of COVID-19 cases, coupled with closed borders and the recent spree of student visa changes and proposals, have all served to make studying in America simultaneously more difficult and less appealing for international students.

Even back in June, when we conducted our last International Student Crossroads Survey, the U.S. was perceived as being the least safe and least inviting country for international students, in addition to being one of the most difficult destinations to obtain a student visa (as shown in the table below.)

Table: International Student Crossroads Survey reasons for changing study plans

Canada has recently introduced a spree of measures to make applying for and receiving student visas quicker and easier and opened borders for international students on October 20th. If we contrast this to America’s policy towards international students, which has only made applying for visas and entering the country more difficult and puts the status of existing international students into question, it is not difficult to understand why international students could view America as an unwelcome and unobtainable study destination.

These challenges, coupled with the increasing adaptability of competitor destinations, may be the significant factors driving students away from the U.S. as a destination country. We know students are willing to change destinations in order to receive the educational experience they want. Indeed, in our latest International Student Crossroads survey, 1 in 3 of respondents stated that they would switch study destination in order to have face-to-face teaching in the destination country, even if they had already accepted an offer. What’s more, as shown in the graph below, the United States was the destination country with the 2nd highest likelihood of students changing destination, behind only New Zealand.

Graph: International Students Crossroads 2: Likelihood of changing study destination By Destination Country

However, our International Student Crossroads surveys have also shown that demand for international education– and studying abroad in the U.S. specifically– remains strong, suggesting that there are many international students with an interest in the U.S. who are not being reached. Given the recent and rapid increases in traffic from competitor destinations, the difficulties facing international students in entering and studying in the U.S. are likely being compounded by effective and targeted marketing from other destinations, resulting in America not only failing to recover from the impact of COVID-19, but falling further and further behind in the market.

If American institutions do not act now to deliver targeted and intelligence-based marketing strategies to international students, communicating effectively the reputations and appeal of America as a study destination, they could suffer losses that will take years to recover from. However, if intelligent marketing strategies alongside adaptive policies for international students are created, institutions could effectively communicate at key points in the recruitment cycle and therefore help the U.S. bounce back better and stronger than before.

Postgraduate Vs Undergraduate: Key points for two contrasting student audiences

While the broader trends in international student recruitment provide important insight into America’s position in the market and key points in the recruitment cycle, the differences between undergraduate, postgraduate and vocational students must be highlighted in order to identify the opportunities and risks, while helping institutions to target different audiences effectively.

Undergraduate International Student Recruitment

Open Doors data indicates that undergraduate students made up over half of international student enrollments in American universities in 2018/19. This makes international undergraduate students a critical source of income for American institutions.

In comparison to the broader international student traffic trends, the margin between interest in undergraduate programs at US institutions and those in the top three destination countries of the UK, Canada, and Australia is smallest. However, interest in studying in the United States has yet to stabilize and continues to fall. The continuing decline in interest in the U.S. as a study destination is slow, but if left unchecked will leave the country well behind the UK, Australia and Canada– all three of which have seen a recovery in interest since May, which is continuing to rise.

Graph: Undergraduate international student demand by destination country from January 1st, 2020 to October 11th, 2020

The continued decline of interest in America is particularly worrying when contextualized with the traffic trends for a typical year in undergraduate student recruitment. From 2019 undergraduate search data, depicted in the graph below, we can see that interest in American undergraduate courses typically has two peaks, one in January and a second, more protracted peak in September and October.

Graph: US demand from international undergraduate students from January 1st, 2019 to December 31st, 2019

The continued decline in undergraduate searches over September is particularly worrying for US institutions given that this should be a period of heightened traffic. If American institutions are unable to attract interest during the time when students are typically most active in their higher education research, there is a real risk not only of loss of revenue, but also in America losing its status as a top destination country.

Windows of opportunity

For American institutions, a short window of opportunity remains to bolster international undergraduate student recruitment and take back some of the ground lost over recent weeks. The Fall peak may be all but over, but our data shows there is a slight delay in traffic trends globally. This means that if US institutions act swiftly, they may be able to catch on to the tail end of a November peak in global traffic and see the current decline in interest stabilize and reverse.

However, while swift and immediate action is required to stop the decline in interest, efforts should also be focusing on January– the time of year American institutions typically see their biggest spike in undergraduate searches. January 2021 will take on even greater significance this year, with all destination countries vying for this significant audience. American institutions need to act now by providing clear communications regarding international students’ options for visas, entering the country, and course delivery.

With the election just around the corner, a lot could change very rapidly. Establishing US institutions as trusted sources of information and advice now will pay dividends in the new year – whatever the election result. Equally, setting up targeted marketing campaigns that deliver content and communications personalized to each user will give US institutions the chance to regain lost ground and turn the tide in undergraduate student recruitment in 2021.

Postgraduate International Student Recruitment

Totalling just under half of America’s international student enrollments in 2018/2019 according to Open Doors data, the postgraduate audience remains a critical and growing section of the international student body. Given that PhD programs typically last anywhere from 4 to 10 years, and Master’s programs provide stability at an average of 2 years, the financial benefits of having a large and diverse international postgraduate student body are immediately obvious.

While the initial onset of COVID-19 appeared to bring the UK, Canada and particularly Australia within competing range of the U.S. as postgraduate destinations, the recovery they have seen since May has not been reflected in growth in interest for America. Indeed, searches for American postgraduate courses continued to decline until August, while the UK, Canada and Australia have all seen a rapid and sustained climb in interest over the past 5 months.

Graph: Postgraduate international student demand by destination country from January 1st, 2020 to October 11th, 2020

The margin between searches for postgraduate programs at American institutions and the three most in-demand locations is now almost greater than before COVID-19 struck. While we can take some encouragement from the slight up-tick in postgraduate searches for America over the past month, a lot more ground must be made up before the U.S. can consider itself out of decline, and out of danger.

Indeed, looking at the trends from last year, shown in the graph below, we would have expected September to be one of the strongest months for postgraduate searches in the U.S., followed by a strong October before tailing off over December and spiking even more in January.

Graph: US demand from international postgraduate students from 1st January 2019 to 31st December 2019

The slight recovery we have seen in September may be attributed to the Fall peak in traffic we would have expected, a peak which seems to have been delayed globally by uncertainty over visas and travel bans. As such, November may be a critical month for postgraduate student recruitment, and it is not yet too late for the U.S. to make a late 2020 recovery.

Looking ahead – Postgraduate interest

It is unlikely the U.S. is going to see a return of international postgraduate student interest without intelligent, sustained and significant investment into communications and marketing campaigns that address the concerns of postgraduate students and provide them with both solutions and incentives to study in the United States.

The value of a postgraduate education in the United States needs to be clearly communicated, with a focus on the quality of online course delivery and clarity over what postgraduate education looks like at each institution. This, combined with up-to-date advice regarding visas, travel, and student safeguarding, must be provided by institutions both as generalized information on websites and as personalized communications to leads at each stage of the recruitment funnel.

Summary:

There is no denying that US institutions face a period of unprecedented challenges, with a multitude of external factors working against them and international competition ramping up across the globe. However, after a period of decline, interest in the U.S. appears to be stabilizing. If a concerted effort is made now by institutions across the country, the U.S. may yet come back stronger than before. With questions remaining over whether students will be able to enter the country in the next 12 months and the safety of traditional in-person teaching, institutions must invest in how online courses are delivered and focus on communicating the value of these alternative and hybrid forms of program delivery to help maintain and grow interest. Online courses will prove a particularly

important avenue for US institutions should borders close and restrictions remain in place regarding the status of international students. Institutions may find trans-national education becoming an increasingly important source of revenue over the coming months and years, making this an important time for reaching out to the international education network to establish foreign offices and campuses.

The prestige of US institutions and the quality of education has long been the key selling point of America as a study destination, and the promotion of those features is one of the few factors that lies in the hands of the institutions themselves. Messaging to international students must focus on the quality and prestige of the education being provided, regardless of the program delivery method, to remind students of the unique value a US education holds and build the brand of individual institutions for potential transnational education ventures.

In addition, personalized marketing is more important than ever as students seek advice and guidance that is specific to them. Now more than ever, every single student search and every lead generated is significant for US institutions. We have seen a greater emphasis on call-to-actions, which lead to students submitting inquiries and requesting more information from institutions and our counselors alike. For students considering the U.S. at a time where there is more confusion and a greater number of obstacles, having a direct line to each is even more important. Institutions must focus on ensuring they have communication systems in place that enable a quick and personalized response to inquiries while also providing up-to-date advice and information on academic programs and delivery.

Peer-to-peer marketing also takes on a new significance in these times of often conflicting top-level messages from governments and institutions, leaving prospective students wondering where to turn for trusted advice. Ensure each prospective student receives clear and helpful communication from their peers. Even if the study goals or financial circumstances of that student cannot be met, providing clear and honest support to one student may well lead to recommendations to others who are in a similar position.

The odds may be stacked against US institutions due to factors beyond their control, but political context may change in the coming months and external negative factors will not remain forever. This is a key opportunity for American institutions to focus on how they present themselves and support international students so that when the current obstacles are lifted, American institutions stand ahead of the pack in student perceptions.

How we can help

IDP Connect is a global leader in international student marketing, with diverse and highly targeted omnichannel platforms, intelligently guided by our unrivalled live student datasets and analytical services. To begin a conversation on how we can support your institution in the current recruitment cycle and offer expert advice, reach out to us here.

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