Digital-First Strategies for International Student Recruitment

In my article, “China and India: Understanding Market Characteristics for Online Recruitment“, published in 2009 in NAGAP Perspectives, I advocated that to maximize the return on investment, graduate schools must embrace online recruitment as one of the channels for international student recruitment. The key rationale was that the student-decision-making process was rapidly moving towards a more self-directed search-behavior supported by peer-to-peer based on online communication and social networks.

Today, we are at an inflexion point where online recruitment is moving from one of the recruitment channels to first and the most important channel for attracting and enrolling international students. This is what I refer to as “digital-first” strategy of international recruitment.

The impact of megatrends indicate that future international recruitment strategies must innovate and adapt to the competitive environment and shifting student behavior. This competitive environment becomes more evident from the recent international graduate enrollment trends and differences by the Carnegie Classification of universities (Table 1).

In 2016, 346,745 international graduate students formed 19% of total graduate enrollment of 1,839,104 students. However, there is significant skew by institutional type. Doctoral Research Universities with Very High activity enrolled two-third of all international graduate students in the U.S. These universities also cornered much of the enrollment growth—both domestic and international. Between 2010 and 2016, Doctoral Research Universities with Very High activity experienced a growth of 55% in international graduate student enrollment as compared to 10% for Doctoral Research Universities with High activity.

In sum, American graduate schools are increasingly reliant on international student for sustaining enrollment goals. However, not all schools have the budgets and brands to sustain the new competitive environment. This makes it very important for graduate schools to innovate and adopt recruitment strategies that are not only cost-effective but allow for targeted outreach in line with student behavior. This is where digital-first marketing strategy plays a critical role. Success of many institutions will depend on how quickly and effectively they innovate and adopt digital-first strategies to the new environment of the Third Wave.

Edited excerpt from original article published with NAGAP Perspectives (Summer 2018).

– Dr. Rahul Choudaha