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Non-traditional, underprepared & int’l – US institutions search for future students

A phrase floating around for some time has suggested that 90% of international students in the US enrol at just 10% of the country’s institutions. Is this actually the case?

NYU was the top school for international students in the US in 2022, with 21,081 students. Photo: Pexels

435,557 international students study in the top five states - 45.9% of the total numbers

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of Postsecondary Title IV schools totalled almost 6,000 schools in 2021. Of these schools, 2,877 were invited to partake in the Open Doors survey in 2022. 

IIE, which compiles the annual report, noted a 52% response rate in 2022 , with 1,489 institutions submitting data – the remaining figures are imputed. 

Some 948,519 international students studied at US universities in 2022 – but California, New York, Massachusetts, Texas and Illinois hosted 435,557 international students – 46% of that total. 

IIE data provided to The PIE News indicates that 28% of international students in the US are hosted by the top 25 institutions; 75% were hosted by the top 200; and 90% were hosted by the top 500.

The figure does paint a narrow picture and a system that has unused capacity for international enrolments. 

“Postsecondary institutions, used to planning for ever-larger demand, will face a new reality”

“International students may initially favour certain geographic locations and specific higher education institutions, but there are so many amazing colleges and universities,” Jill Blondin, associate vice provost for global initiatives at VCU, told The PIE. 

Getting students to consider other options apart from those well-known colleges is easier said than done – especially when, as Blondin put it, it can be an “overwhelming” experience for students to go through “a myriad of options”. 

International student enrolment in the US was back up in 2022 despite issues surrounding decline from China, with India set to overtake as top source country within the next five years.

However, international recruitment and the need of some colleges to perhaps broaden horizons could play into another bigger issue for US colleges – wherein domestic enrolment is set to drop off a cliff.  

South Dakota State University is “currently engaged in a strategic plan for enrolment management that addresses each area of the university’s recruitment efforts, including undergraduate, graduate, international and online learners”, according to its VP for international affairs Jon Stauff.

“Academic units have been encouraged over the past several years to imagine different ways to deliver programs, new ways to engage traditional markets for students, and novel approaches to introduce our programs to potential students in new markets in the region, nationally, and internationally,” he explained.

International recruitment will be one prong in a trident of methods, also including non-traditional and underprepared students, Ben Waxman, CEO of Intead, told The PIE.

“It’s not all about enrolment loss. It’s about revenue loss – in each one of those segments, there’s a student pool to be tapped. But you can’t just be an institution that has served the 18-year olds and then suddenly hang out a sign saying, ‘Oh, and by the way, we also serve international’ or, ‘By the way, we also serve underprepared students’.

“You actually have to adapt. You have to change what it is you’re offering so that that student segment is served well,” he noted.

South Dakota State’s current strategy takes in some understanding of this need to adapt.

“Internationals are just one aspect of our efforts to sustain and grow enrolments in the coming decade,” Stauff noted.

“It is important not to neglect your neighbours and key population centres in our state, as we are a public university with a specific vision to serve our state.”

Some colleges would find a whole new revenue stream with certificates – a shorter, less regulated and less structured credential could be a short-term solution to financial issues for smaller colleges, Waxman suggested.

Eddie West, assistant dean of international strategy at San Diego State University, warned that the competition among smaller colleges may get even stiffer as elite universities power through an expected tumultuous time mostly unscathed.

“Not every school that starts this work or tries to increase their existing international enrolment is going to be successful. So many schools, and countries, [are] actively courting international students,” West said.

“A wiser decision, though perhaps a tougher pill to swallow, could be for those schools to either thoughtfully downsize – one might say ‘right size’,” West added. He also posited the idea that schools may need to take on “non-traditional learners”, as Waxman suggested.

“It is incumbent on us as international educators to share the opportunities”

But West also indicated that demographic changes will play out differently in different areas of the country – the Northeast and Midwest, West said, are facing the most acute declines.

He suggested that states wherein extreme heat is often a problem are going to find it harder to recruit both domestic and international students – a “graver, if longer-term challenge” to think about.

Overall, Waxman concluded that universities’ wills to survive these tough times ahead will come from a singular decision.

“It will be [whether they have] an entrepreneurial mindset. It doesn’t matter whether the new market you’re going after is students from Kenya or Brazil or it’s non-traditional students who are within a 50 mile radius of you,” he told The PIE.

Speaking of an entrepreneurial mindset, Cormack Consultancy Group have been hard at work behind the scenes with some American institutions, helping them prepare for the oncoming storm.

“We wanted to try and persuade them to look at things like franchising and validation of programs, which is alien in many cases to them – but we have made some progress. We now have a number of US institutions who are essentially franchising – or going into collaborative provision,” Charles Cormack, UK chair and founder of the Group, told The PIE.

“A number are under quite significant financial pressure – so we came up with a model called the Graduate Hub, chiefly aimed at liberal arts colleges and tier two state universities who don’t have much postgraduate provision.

“By creating a partnership with a British university who is able to franchise courses, they can quickly open a graduate hub or school on their campus that will allow them to keep students and get them onto that postgrad,” he explained.

CCG’s Patricia Delaney said the issue is in no way a sudden “hurricane that appeared in the Atlantic”, but a brewing storm that’s been on the minds of academics for some time – some institutions, like South Dakota State, have prepared, some have recognised the challenge is coming – but some have indeed buried their head in the sand.

“Colleges being in each of these categories has to do with leadership and private versus public, decision horizons and geography.

She also pointed out the “demographic cliff” statement is quite a broad generalisation – echoing West’s points about profound drops forecast in the upper Midwest and the Northeast.

“If you if you don’t look at the local context, at the state level or the regional level, you miss quite a lot,” she added.

Whether some colleges may not, as West said, survive the cliff, remains to be seen – but the general sector, in Blondin’s opinion, needs to stick together to see it through to the other side.

“It is incumbent on us as international educators to share the opportunities, specifically the support we provide as well as the academic value proposition for international students,” added Blondin.

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