International students are sought-after, well-qualified members of incoming classes that enrich the campus community with global perspectives and often provide more tuition revenue for the university. However, they tend to fall off the path to application and matriculation more often than do their domestic counterparts.
Some assume this unfortunate phenomenon is solely due to the United States’ volatile political climate. But international student enrollments in American colleges and universities have long been complicated, even before these tumultuous times of visa restrictions and travel bans. In particular, international students are less likely to complete their applications, a challenge rooted in cultural differences in application timing.
How timing can make recruitment tricky
Timing is a core problem in international recruitment, as our comparative analyses of more than 10 million prospective domestic and international student applicants in 2017 have shown.
Unlike their counterparts in the U.S., most international students wait to take standardized tests until their senior year of high school. This is considered the “normal” time to take these tests in many other cultures, but many admissions directors in the United States see this senior year testing as a delay: it prevents them from accessing international students’ names as early as those of domestic students. Outreach campaigns stall and are then out of sync with efforts to recruit domestic students, complicating the process further for enrollment managers.
This lack of synchronization in outreach timing has a domino effect, pushing back all phases of the admission cycle. We have found, for example, that international students apply and submit their deposit later than domestic students. Only 35% of international applicants—compared to 70% of American applicants—have completed their applications by February 1st. And 59% of international student deposits arrive in April—just shortly before May 1 deadlines.
Perhaps because many international students’ timelines are different than their American peers, they don’t always benefit from colleges’ reminders to advance their applications—and our research supports this notion. We have found that international students take longer to finish applications and are less likely to complete the entire application process—including second-round early decision applications that are increasingly popular among students from the United States.
Compounding this problem is international students’ hesitation to provide their parents’ email addresses. Only 19% of international students—compared to 40% of domestic students—provide parent information, therefore limiting the ability of schools in the United States to enlist the involvement of parents who might help to nudge their kids’ applications across the finish line.
Three ways to foster international student recruitment
As with domestic-resident students, institutions must counsel international students about college choice and financial decisions, ultimately ensuring that every student makes an informed and beneficial personal choice. Although it is tempting to assume that standard practices for student search, application marketing, and yield management suffice for international recruitment, our research indicates that this is not the case.
Instead, we recommend that admissions professionals implement the following three practices:
- Ensure that international students receive communication campaigns that reflect the timing and tempo of students’ cultural norms for college preparation.
Because international students are less likely to receive paper mail from institutions, we encourage schools to increase email communications and include opportunities and contact information for students to respond in all correspondence.
- Invest in a website that is engaging and accessible for international students.
We have found that international students cite institutions’ websites as their top source for information about colleges and universities, second only to direct emails from colleges and universities. Be sure your website is optimized for international users.
- Actively welcome students from abroad.
Given the current political climate in the United States, institutions must deliberately articulate their commitment to creating an inclusive, diverse student body. We suggest that schools share testimonials from current international students and strong, affirmative messages from campus leaders that will assure international students they will thrive in the United States—and should complete the application process that could bring them here.