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Personal touch key to recruiting Indian undergrads

India has traditionally been a post-graduate market for student recruitment but demand for international undergraduate study is now growing. In order to tap into undergraduate interest, many US universities must radically overhaul their recruitment strategies to create more meaningful interactions with students and a stronger on-the-ground presence.

Indian students in Thoothukkudi, Tamil Nadu, India. Photo: Natesh Ramasamy.

“You don’t necessarily have to talk to 1,000 students. You could talk to ten students and personalise the heck out of that experience"

This was the lesson coming out of a seminar on recruiting Indian undergraduates held at the NAFSA conference last week.

There were just 16,521 Indian undergraduates in the US in 2015, but this figure marked a 30% increase on the previous year and with more than half the country’s population of 1.3 billion under the age of 25, India is a huge potential source of undergraduate students.

“If you can personalise the experience for each student and their parent, your success rate will dramatically increase”

However, many universities fail to create a solid, country-specific strategy for recruitment that works for India’s ‘high-contact’ culture, said Girish Ballolla, CEO of Gen Next Education, a company which works to connect US institutions with Indian students.

Where institutions fall down is usually with “a lack of personalisation on the ground”, Ballolla said.

“If you can develop the ability to personalise the experience for each and every student and their parent, your success rate will dramatically increase,” he predicted.

Many institutions make the mistake of trying to speak to huge numbers of students in the hope that a small number will apply, he said, but investing more time in a small number could yield a higher proportion of applications.

Christina Hilpipre-Frischman, director of international admissions at the University of St Thomas in Minnesota, shared how instead of first telling students about her institution, she began trying “to have a conversation about what their hopes are, what their dreams are, and [then] try to connect our school to that”.

Digital channels can be an effective tool for contacting students personally, speakers agreed.

Hilpipre-Frischman said she began sending a short video to students over WhatsApp immediately after meeting them, yielding a 400% better response rate than previously.

On-the-ground calling campaigns have also worked, she said. By using an India-based company – in this case, through Gen Next Education – to reach out, this eliminates issues created by the time difference for US institutions.

“Students are often afraid to talk to me about their financial situation or their grades,” she added, since students are more willing to speak with India-based advisors, who can provide information and reassurance.

“India is not a six-month strategy… It’s not going to be less than four years before applications come in”

Picking the right demographics to target is also a crucial part of a successful undergraduate strategy in India, explained Ballolla.

Many universities tend to contact international curriculum schools where students often have already made up their minds to attend an Ivy-league school.

Instead, national curriculum schools are the “sweet spot” for international recruitment, particularly for less well-known schools, as these students are less brand-conscious and more realistic, Ballolla said.

Hilpipre-Frischman has visited India six times in the last 18 months, showing the time and resources required for successful recruitment.

“India is not a six-month strategy… It’s not going to be less than four years before applications come in,” Ballolla advised, stressing the importance of investing time to build brand recognition.

However, while the resource commitment is high, successful strategies can streamline recruitment and make it more effective.

“You don’t necessarily have to talk to 1,000 students in a funnel format to get two,” Ballolla told The PIE News. “You could talk to ten students and parents in India and personalise the heck out of that experience; you will yield two or three students. Or maybe more.”

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