University World News: Jump in use of agencies to recruit international students

The road to post-pandemic recovery remains bumpy for most universities and colleges in the United States, according to a new report, but two interesting trends are emerging – a significant jump in the proportion of institutions partnering with educational agencies to recruit international students and a general shift among agencies away from reliance on rankings towards focusing on how institutions equip students to be successful.

May 26, 2023 University World News

The top two attributes educational agencies consider when vetting university partners are academic programmes and tuition fees. These are more important than institutional rankings, which came out as the third most important consideration, the study shows.

The State of the International Student Recruitment and Enrolment Field survey, released on 24 May, found that overall growth in recruitment in the US is being driven by only 40% of institutions.

Among universities in the United States surveyed between July and October 2022, 40% expected to return to pre-pandemic levels in the 2022-23 academic year, but 53% predicted they would continue to face a decline and 7% anticipated stable enrolment.

The survey was conducted by the American International Recruitment Council in cooperation with market intelligence and strategic development firm BONARD and association partners the Association of International Education Administrators and the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

The results provide benchmark data reported by 195 universities in the US and 105 educational recruitment agencies in 39 countries and represents 118,000 international students (more than 12%) in the US – during what is referred to in the report as a “dynamic period” for international enrolment management.

It found there was an average of 1,265 international students enrolled per US institution in 2021-22, down from 1,324 in 2018-19, but up from 1,175 in 2020-21. The forecast for the 2022-23 year anticipated an overall return to pre-pandemic levels of 1,334.

Current realities

“As we move forward as a field after the COVID-19 pandemic, the data presented here will help us to understand the current realities of the international enrolment management field and thus better prepare us to be successful in the future,” the report notes.

Among these “current realities” – listed under the Insights from Educational Agencies section – is the cost of studying and living in the United States, specified by 65% of participating agencies as the top challenge when it comes to student recruitment. This was followed by “difficulties getting a visa” at 53% and “lack of partners” at 29%.

“The image of the United States” was noted as a challenge by 24% of agencies and “safety” was the lowest ranked challenge at 16%.

Under “reasons why US institutions recruit international students”, the highest number of institutions rated “diversify student body” as the main reason, followed by “become a more global institution”, “promote global learning for all students”, “overall financial well-being of the institution” and “to help grow international research” – in that order.

The research also investigated trends in graduation and transfer rates, finding that the graduation rate at the undergraduate level had remained relatively stable over the past few years (at around 64%), with international graduate student graduation rates increasing from 57% in 2019-20 to 67% in 2021-22.

It showed that while the proportion of international students who transferred out of institutions continued to drop for undergraduate students (14%), a greater proportion of graduate students (6%) transferred out compared to previous years.

According to the report, financial and personal circumstances were the main reasons reported for transferring out.

Increased professionalisation

Despite these challenges and the ‘bumpy’ road to post-pandemic recovery, the report is generally optimistic, particularly about the state of the international student enrolment industry.

Dr Brian Whalen, executive director of the American International Recruitment Council, described the survey as “both a sign of the field’s increasing professionalisation and an important way to shape its future. We hope our report will help institutions and agencies forge mutually beneficial partnerships that consider the goals and strategies of each partner.”

Among the trends identified by the report’s authors is a “dramatic growth” in higher education institution-agency partnerships and stable investment in student recruitment activities on the part of institutions.

“The proportion of US institutions partnering with educational agencies to recruit international students jumped from 49% to 62% in a year, according to the report, which means that “partnering with educational agencies is now part of the international recruitment strategy for almost two-thirds of institutions in the sector”.

In addition, the report notes that 98% of those institutions that do not currently work with agencies are considering forming a partnership with an educational agency to boost their international enrolments.

In a press release, Patrik Pavlacic, chief intelligence officer at BONARD and lead researcher on the project, described this development as a “sector-wide shift”.

“It will be interesting to monitor the situation in the immediate future, as the sector moves on from the pandemic crisis and study destinations globally compete aggressively for student recruitment,” he said.

While as many as 62% of institutions noted an adverse financial impact on their institution as a result of a decline in international student enrolment, 57% nonetheless reported that the international student recruitment budget for their university remained the same compared to 2021. For 25% of institutions, the budget increased.

Emphasising the trend towards the professionalisation of the industry, the report notes that while international student recruitment is still mostly the domain of an institution’s admissions office for most respondents (54%), institutions report employing a variety of ways to carry out this activity. For example, 21% said they manage recruitment via the global education office, while 9% report having a standalone division or unit dedicated to it, according to a press release.

Agency objectives

The parallel survey of the 105 responding recruitment agencies, by far the highest proportion of which were in India (29%) compared with the next highest in the US (8%), Brazil and Mexico (both 6%), revealed that “serving our student customer” was the highest-scoring objective (453 points) among agencies. (The lowest score was for “expanding the use of technology to deliver services” at 185 points).

Agencies indicated that when it came to vetting a potential US institutional partner, the top three attributes considered were academic programme offering, tuition and fees, and ranking – in that order.

When it came to criteria for working with US institutions, whether they had “institutional offerings … of interest to student clients” featured at the top (461 points) of the list, and way above “amount of commission” at 301 points.

The report notes that institutional rankings “do not appear to be as important as they have been in the past” for agencies when it came to vetting a potential partner. However, it also notes that educational agencies in China were significantly under-represented in the survey, which may have “skewed this result”.

Whalen told University World News that the lower response rate from agencies in China – only 3% of responding agencies – is likely because of the “particular impacts of the pandemic” on these agencies.

“A number of agencies closed or merged, and it appears that a significant number of people transitioned to new sectors for work or to a different agency. This seems to have resulted in a much lower response rate compared to other regions.”

He said the focus on rankings on the part of agencies is a reflection of what their student and family clients value. Citing a number of recent reports, including the ICEF Monitor report and the QS Intelligence Unit report, Whalen said: “In China, and East Asia in general, surveys show that rankings continue to be an important factor.”

However, he said there is a more general shift away from rankings and towards a focus on “how institutions help students to obtain the knowledge, skills and opportunities that will lead to professional and personal success”.

“Students and families want a return on the significant investment that they are making and the institutions that focus on delivering the outcomes to help students to succeed in their lives and careers will be the ones that are in demand,” he said.

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