The international student marketplace is incredibly lucrative but highly competitive, even for elite universities. For smaller institutions, getting a larger piece of the pie can sound daunting when competing against powerhouses both across the United States and overseas. However, it’s possible for smaller institutions to stand out by really thinking through the demographics they want to serve and by creating programs that support their transition. In this interview, Joseph Ugras reflects on some of the reasons the international marketplace has grown so much in recent years and shares his thoughts on what it takes for smaller institutions to differentiate themselves.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is the international student marketplace so important for American colleges and universities?
Joseph Ugras (JU): Over the years, especially in some parts of the United States, they’re seeing demographic changes in that the number of traditional-age students is decreasing. This is increasing the pressure to find other sources of incoming students. That is one important reasons for the increasing focus on the international marketplace: it’s financially important for institutions to find new student demographics.
The other reason the international market is becoming more important is to make the student body more diverse and to create more opportunities for American students to interact with more international students in their classrooms.
There has been a significant increase in international students coming to the U.S. and there’s a variety of reasons for that. From 2008 to 2015, there has been a 45-percent increase in the number of international students coming to the U.S. according to IIE data. Most international students prefer the U.S. as an education destination. American universities have a strong reputation globally and offer instruction in English. Those factors attract international students to our market.
The increase in buying power of international students and increasing student mobility and interest in American universities make the U.S. a preferred destination. Universities have to figure out how to compete and attract students.
Evo: What are the biggest challenges smaller institutions like LaSalle face to standing out to prospective international students?
JU: Small institutions do not have the reputation of highly ranked, large institutions and that poses a significant challenge in their recruitment strategy. In some global regions, the market puts a heavy weight on rankings and the size of the institution so as a small institution you have to use your resources wisely and you have to address the high cost of competing for global recruitment.
You cannot, as a small institution, have the resources to go all over the world so you have to be very selective in where to be and you have to make wise investments and consider a strategic recruitment plan that looks at student segmentation. You have to know what parts of the world have the students that would be attracted to your institution and what parts of the world have the type of students that fit to the programs that you offer. You have to look at demographic changes, people’s buying power and people’s interest in your programs.
Small institutions do not have the ranking of the large institutions but they do have some advantages that they have to highlight. There are some emerging countries that as a small school you might have to consider, and the reputation of your institution in those countries is an important factor.
Evo: What are a few of the factors that your institution highlights to generate international demand?
JU: We have to consider our connections to any given region: How are we represented in that region? What are people’s perceptions about La Salle in that region? How many students come from that particular country to the U.S. and what are the destinations that those students choose?
We are in a part of the U.S. that attracts a significant number of international students. The I-95 corridor between Boston and Washington DC is an attractive area and a preferred area for international students interested in coming to the U.S. We also have some strong majors and programs that suit international students, which is an important factor in our success internationally. In addition, as I mentioned earlier, as a small institution we give a lot of attention to students during the recruitment and admission processes and continue that throughout their time with us. After they’ve enrolled, for example, we have the services and support mechanisms in place to ensure the students are going to be successful here.
For LaSalle in particular, we do have a strong reputation globally. The La Salle University brand is known worldwide because of the other local La Salle institutions, so we have that advantage in some parts of the world where we are well known.
The use of technology and social media is very important for us because we do not have the budget to go all over the world. We also use third-party recruitment service providers—agents and pathway programs—to support our international recruitment. Another path for recruiting students is partnering with community colleges and intensive English language providers. Relationships with these education providers create low-cost advantage in the recruitment space. As a small institution, these lower cost paths are critical, so use of local resources, agents, country representatives and alumni present in the country is a terrific approach.
Next come financial aid strategies. You have to figure out students’ need for financial aid. There are analyses you can find that provide insights into the likely need for financial aid for international students coming from specific countries.
Evo: How important are non-credit pathway language programs to opening the door to prospective international students?
JU: It’s increasingly important for institutions to provide proper academic solutions because not every student is going to be ready to jump into a college-level academic program. Universities have realized that they need to have solutions for English preparation and more pathway programs have emerged in response.
Innovations in the U.S. pathway program market represent a great opening of the door for prospective students to matriculate into American degree programming.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about what it takes for smaller American institutions to not just stand out to international students in the U.S. but to stand out in the global market place?
As a small institution competing in the international marketplace, you have to conduct a great deal of data analysis and you have to study the marketplace to succeed. There are very strong indications that there are opportunities for an institution to help its undergrad or graduate enrollment by leveraging the international market and you have to find the right strategy to find out which country is a good fit for you. After all, there’s no way a small institution can have the infrastructure to recruit all over the world, so it’s important to develop a strategy that allows smaller institutions to focus their resources. By the same token, it is also possible for institutions to invest a great deal of resources and not get the return that they seek, so I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to plan ahead and put some data together before you put money into a recruitment strategy.