The Quest for Internationals: Seven considerations in the recruitment of international students and what institutional leaders can do to work through them

In 2006, Northeastern University enrolled students from 42 countries, representing 4 percent of the freshman class. By 2009, the university had increased those numbers to 61 countries and 11 percent, along the way adding 932 new high schools sending students to Boston.

How did they do it, and why? According to Philly Mantella, Northeastern’s senior vice president of enrollment and student life, officials actively pursued a plan in line with the university’s “intent to expand our reach, and to pursue opportunities beyond the region.” Also important was the fit with the university’s “obligation to prepare a global citizenry.”

If there is a Holy Grail to rescue the beleaguered college admissions office today, it seems to be the vision of a flock of full-paying international students swarming from abroad, cash in hand, diversity in pocket, to balance the hard times of budget cuts, limited staff travel, financial aid pressures, and demographic shifts. One of the hot topics at the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) conference in Baltimore this past fall was the presence of international students from China and, more incidentally, such other countries as India, and how to manage what was being seen as a rising tide of qualified candidates. How to find them? How to assess them? How to enroll and support them?

The national media has been replete with coverage of this issue, yet data show that after a dip following the 2001 terrorist attacks, international applications and enrollments have risen substantially. According to the Institute of International Education’s 2009 “Open Doors” report, new international student enrollment has increased markedly every year since 2004-2005; from 2007-2008 to 2008-2009, there were 200,469 new international students, an increase of 15.8 percent. Overall, 671,616 internationals were studying in the United States last year, almost half of them undergraduates. Some two-thirds of internationals were paying for their education through their own or family funds, an increase of 12.1 percent from the previous year. India was barely ahead of China as the top source of internationals (103,260), with China (98,235) having increased its students by more than 21 percent from the previous year.

Our experience as admissions counselors as well as our involvement in a variety of internet-based communication initiatives bears out the intense interest among internationals in studying in the United States, and the strong desire on the part of college and university admission offices to enroll them. Here are some of the major questions and concerns we are seeing and hearing, which administrators should take into account as they explore their approach to international student recruitment.


It is obvious that most international students will have far less understanding of the admissions process at American colleges and universities than U.S. students. Now, we know how confused a typical American high school student is by the complexities and uncertainties of the selective college admissions process these days. That includes a lack of understanding of the overall higher education landscape of thousands of public and private, two-year and four-year, open enrollment and highly selective, and residential and commuter colleges and universities. Imagine the bewilderment of an international student living in a country like China, India, South Korea, Vietnam, or Saudi Arabia. While many might have fairly good basic English language skills, most will have little conception of the cultural and educational nuances they will confront.

We strongly encourage American students to visit college campuses, both before they apply and after they are admitted. Most will see their local community college, flagship public university, and/or several to a dozen private institutions near or far from home. This educational component of the college search, application, and decision process is essential in the personal development of a high school student and the improvement in the likelihood that they will enroll in an appropriate college for them.

Many internationals, particularly those in East and South Asia and the Middle East, will not have the opportunity to visit campuses until the day they arrive in the fall to start classes. Many will also be less concerned with social and residential life issues, and more focused on specific academic programs, rankings, and the reputation of the college in their home country. It is thus incumbent on a college to present itself well online, including through virtual tours, and special website sections designed for internationals, as well as in presentation sessions with internationals in their home countries or at summer programs and fairs in the U.S. or in third countries where students might gather.

The lack of familiarity with American campus environments, smaller liberal arts colleges, community colleges, and less recognizable “brand names” combines with an overall lack of understanding of the basic mechanics and timing of the admissions process and the more complicated nuances of decisions, especially at more selective institutions. In particular, internationals from countries where admission to top national universities is based almost entirely on test scores on national exams are often mystified by the seeming randomness and subjectivity of the American process. A student with strong courses, grades, and test scores may not understand why she was rejected at a college for which she was well-qualified. Thus a great deal of explanation needs to cover not just the process of applying, but also the factors that govern the admissions decision making at different types of institutions.


As endowment draws and state appropriations have shrunk during this extended recession, staff and budget cuts, hiring freezes, and stalled new initiatives have resulted. Doing more with less is the order of the day, and administrators need to consider carefully where to send admissions officers and other enrollment recruiters.

Many offices are having trouble sending staff to regular professional conferences in the United States, let alone to school-based recruiting visits in Beijing or Mumbai. In what appears at times to be a mad rush into China and a few other locales, we encourage administrators to step back and consider the necessity of sending staff abroad.

Costs, in terms of travel budgets and time away from core admissions recruiting areas nearer to home, need to be assessed. Are there ways of accomplishing international recruitment goals for less? How does international recruiting fit with your overall institutional mission? What are likely sources of appropriate internationals for your college, perhaps based on places where significant numbers of alumni live or which have sent larger groups of applicants in the past?


One boiling hot topic within the overall hot topic of enrolling internationals is the use of foreign agents or recruiters to build your international pool. At the NACAC meeting, admissions representatives from selective institutions such as Duke, Carleton (Minn.), and the University of Southern California seemed of one mind in their disdain for foreign “middlemen.” All three noted significant increases in applications and enrollments from China, for example, and their own strong desire to go directly to the country to meet with interested students. In particular, paying recruiters on a per-student placement basis is anathema to most institutions in the United States.

That said, countries like Australia and those in the United Kingdom have long utilized paid recruiters to feed students into their universities, and they have become major competitors to the United States in attracting international applicants. Here, some colleges and universities have moved hesitantly (and quietly) toward a paid recruiting model. So, while the preference among American colleges seems to be for direct contact with students, limited budgets and a shifting competitive landscape internationally might necessitate a move by some institutions toward the use of paid agents.

Groups and companies such as the Inter-association Network on Campus Internationalization (INCI), the Overseas Association for College Admission Counseling (OACAC), ICEF and the American International Recruitment Council (AIRC) have sprung up to serve and to regulate the international student recruiting industry and U.S. educational institutions.


As with American students who often barely understand the financial aid process, international students need clear information and understanding about what aid, if any, might be available to support their studies. Since the majority of internationals pay their own way, and most internationals are excluded from the largest pots of financial aid (state and federal funds), those without sufficient financial resources want to know the reality of how much college—your college—will cost them. Providing clear information on your website about scholarships, both number and typical amounts for internationals, is a good starting point. Communicating up front with families you meet with abroad about your Total Cost of Attendance is essential.


Unsurprisingly, your institution will not be the only one recruiting a particular student, or facing resource and information constraints. Colleges have begun to band together and work with some for-profit companies to provide a common foundation for international students to learn about U.S. admissions and particular colleges.

Northeastern, for example, participates in the Global Pathways and U.S.-Sino Pathway Program. The former is a partnership with Kaplan International Colleges, utilizing this for-profit provider’s extensive experience with international education and English language skill-building. The Global Pathways program prepares successful students for entrance directly into one of Northeastern’s degree programs. The U.S.-Sino Pathways Program allows Chinese students the opportunity to gain a foundation for guaranteed admission to one of a consortium of institutions, including Baylor University (Texas), the University of Vermont, and the University of Utah. These skill-building programs are what Mantella called “pipeline programs” that expand Northeastern’s reach and presence abroad.

To complement those efforts at home, Northeastern will also host the OACAC conference this year as part of its efforts to build its overall presence among international students, institutions, and advisors. Others colleges, such as Middlebury College (Vt.), Cornell University, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Virginia, have taken advantage of localized fairs abroad sponsored in some cases by recruiting agencies, and in others by nonprofit and educational organizations, such as The Council for American Culture and Education. It is important to vet these groups carefully and to make sure they are not using your institutional name in ways you don’t approve of. Using local alumni, colleagues, or other trustworthy sources to evaluate opportunities to take part in fairs or other recruiting venues can help provide reassurance.


The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs has begun to re-work its support for international students hoping to study in the United States working in partnership with the Institute for International Education to expand and reform the Education USA program. This program consists of some 400 advising centers abroad, and an expanded website and online information center for prospective international students. The site also provides guidance for American colleges and universities on creating a more “international student-friendly campus” and “internationally-friendly website.” Coordinating your online and overseas recruitment efforts with the Education USA program can be an easy first step today.


As the State Department has suggested, recruiting and admission efforts are only the beginning of the story. If you are successful, you will have more international applicants applying, being admitted, and choosing to enroll. From there you should consider what you need to do to make your campus more supportive and hospitable for international students, many of whom might never have set foot previously on U.S. soil.

Northeastern refers to its efforts as a “sustainable” international admissions and enrollment program, through which students will not only continue to build an application pool in a particular area, but also persist and graduate from the university, returning with positive feedback that encourages more, and more appropriate, students to enroll at an institution that is the right fit for them.


American International Recruitment Council
The Council for American Culture and Education
Education USA
Global Pathways
Institute of International Education
Inter-association Network on Campus Internationalization
National Association for College Admission Counseling
Overseas Association for College Admission Counseling
U.S.-Sino Pathway Program

As you think about building your numbers of international students, and their diversity, you should also consider the impact of those students on your current students, and possible reactions of alumni and other supporters. On the positive side, there is the impact of pursuing a global education right at home, perhaps combined with study away, internship, and other exchange opportunities that will allow your students to receive the benefits of a multinational, multicultural, 21st century education.

Yet not all stakeholders will automatically support such endeavors. If you are a publicly supported institution, state legislators and taxpayers might question how and why scarce resources are being spent to recruit and educate non-U.S. students. Private college alumni and donors might need reassurance that scarce spaces and budget dollars are not being spent on internationals to the detriment of traditional applicants and core constituencies. Consider educating these groups about the educational benefits of your efforts, and the actual costs (which in some cases could be actual financial returns) to the budget.

On campus, internationals will not be the only ones in need of education, support, and engagement. Many American students will have had little, if any, contact with international students, let alone the kind of intensive residential, social, and intellectual engagement that takes place on a typical campus. Helping international students acculturate and succeed will likely require working with your American student body, faculty, and staff to create a university and community-wide effort to reap the rewards of a global campus community.

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