US International Higher Education

Open Doors 2019 Analysis: Winning Strategies in Challenging Times

With the release of the 2019 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, the United States saw another year of slowing momentum as a destination country for international students.

The report, released November 18 by the Institute of International Education, analyzed student intake from the 2018-19 academic year and found the smallest increase in the number of international students studying in the United States in over 10 years. New enrollments continued to decline year-over-year for the third consecutive year, down 0.9%, driven primarily by a 5.7% decrease in non-degree students and a 1.5% drop in new undergraduate enrollments. Several countries continue to see year-over-year declines in the number of students choosing the U.S. as their study destination, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran, and Turkey.

But the challenges of the shifting marketplace have not affected all institutions equally. So why are some universities feeling the effects more than others? Why do certain institutions continue to experience growth despite ongoing national declines? According to David Bushey, Director of Client Partnerships and Operations for IDP Connect USA, the answer is multifaceted. Of the institutions that are seemingly unaffected by the country’s slowing momentum, Bushey notes several key strategies that he sees successful universities implementing.

Reaching Students at the Top of the Funnel: A Robust Digital Presence

Now more than ever, institutions must have a strong digital presence outside of their own website. According to Bushey, the admissions funnel of the past is long gone; virtually all Gen Z students begin their buying journey with broad online searches for programs and destination information.

Reaching students at the top of the funnel used to mean a travel-heavy approach, with almost all resources dedicated to an extensive boots-on-the-ground strategy. While travel is still critical for middle-of-the-funnel stages of the student buyer journey, having a robust presence on course-search websites that rank highly among major search engines is essential for raising awareness and generating inquiries for your institution. Year-over-year, IDP has seen a 37% increase in the number of digital leads generated for institutions across its two course-search sites, and, underscoring the massive surge in importance of having a strong digital presence.

Recognizing the Power of Your Secondary Audience: Parents

Another critical piece of a successful international student recruitment strategy involves recognizing the immense influence of parents in the student buying journey. According to the inaugural Parent Buyer Behavior report by IDP and Austrade, which surveyed 720 parents of prospective international students, parents are more likely to choose their child’s destination country, while students are more likely to choose the program of study. The research showed that while parents and students typically visit education agents and attend fairs together, they conduct online research independently and have differing priorities in the process. These findings demonstrate the need for universities to develop tailored information for both groups to ensure that marketing efforts do not neglect parents, who are the most important influencers in students’ decision-making process.

A Diversified International Recruitment Strategy

According to Bushey, education providers who diversify recruitment strategies have a clear advantage over those who do not. While many institutions think diversifying means focusing on markets outside of China and India, Bushey emphasizes a different kind of diversification: employing the right mix of strategies and partnerships to ensure you’re reaching a broad number of highly qualified students. This means taking a close look at the sources of your prospective and current students and exploring how those sources can be maximized, whether that be participating in virtual fairs, engaging with high-quality education agents, planning strategic in-country activities, expanding your digital presence, establishing partnership programs with universities abroad, and more. A well-diversified approach to reaching prospective international students ensures greater stability in times of market uncertainty.

Though the 2019 Open Doors Report revealed yet another year of slowing momentum for the U.S. as a destination country, colleges and universities are not powerless to the market. With the proper strategies in place, institutions can ensure a resilient, modern, and diversified approach to international marketing and recruitment efforts.

Interested in exploring new recruitment channels? Email us at

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