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John McDonough, CEO, UTP High Schools

In 2011, John McDonough took a chance on his gut feeling and opened up University Track Preparation, which offers specialised programs for international students in US high schools. Today UTP connects a select group of schools with top international candidates from more than 30 countries.

McDonough spoke to The PIE News about how he built the business from the ground up, the challenges they face and their plans for the future.

The PIE: Why did you start UTP?

"We not only do student advising and support, we kind of play a parental role to students"

JMD: We started UTP in 2011 with the whole idea of trying to service the market because at the time, it was only placement companies that were doing [international student placement into high schools]. There were companies with a whole huge list of schools and not really focusing on service and more about transactions and getting commission.

It was kind of a hodge-podge of different people involved in trying to give the different services to students, so home-stay, recruitment, marketing – it was all crazy.

The PIE: Did you have an idea of how big the market was for high school?

JMD: I would say I had a gut feeling. At the time I wasn’t obsessing over numbers, and quite frankly it was only in the last year or so that they’ve really been starting to publish numbers; IIE is now doing numbers on high school kids, which is so refreshing.

I moved back to the States after doing my grad in London. I was involved in the whole ISC [international study centre on campus] scene when I worked in China, and I kept saying to my employer, why don’t we try to do this at a high school level.

I wanted to try something of my own and answer a need for the market I thought was there. I started with my alma mater, with my close friend: we both went to that high school so we’re both graduates.

The PIE: Where was your alma mater?

JMD: St Anthony’s High School in Long Island, New York. That was our first partner school, and it’s a big school with 2,500 students. It’s got about 300 international students.

The PIE: Do students generally stay for one year?

JMD: No, the majority of them stay for 2.5 years on average. Mostly Asian, but we have a lot of exchange students as well. So it’s not just an Asian business, we do a lot of business in Europe. Germany’s one of our top five, but we also have offices in Mexico, Vietnam, South Korea, China.

The PIE: Do you feel like the high school market is still a bit under the radar?

“They’re 14-years-old and coming from half a world away; they need help to understand what to do”

JMD: It’s coming on the radar I think. Also there’s been a lot of articles from the global mobility report and all these things that are saying that high schools are the place to recruit international students now, so don’t travel abroad but look for them here.

We’re well positioned for that; we have hundreds of high school students already in the US so I think that’s getting us on the radar from a university perspective, as they think ‘we can work with this one provider that has all of these schools’ on board.

The PIE: In the next issue of The PIE Review we’re writing about the onshore international student market, which is quite well established in Australia and increasingly so in the UK, but it’s a new thing in the US?

JMD: It’s a huge country, the US, and everyone’s got relatives somewhere, so I think we’ve done a good job with tapping into that.

We’re ahead of the game I would say, we’ve focused on [the US] because there’s less risk but there’s also a lot to figure out. It’s not as straightforward as going to an agency’s office in China or Germany and saying ‘here are our programs’.

The PIE: So tell us more about how you built the business.

JMD: The difference between UTP and other companies is we have our own team on-campus – it’s the ISC model of the high schools, that’s the best way to quickly describe it.

We started at St. Anthony’s and we had such success that. There’s another school in Long Island called St. John’s which has around 1700 students, and my nephews and nieces went there, so I thought I may as well go and talk to the principal there.

It was a harder sell but they came and saw what we did. They thought ‘we should do this too’ and we started with them.

Then we took on Fairmont, a school in California, and then we started getting out of our comfort zone with scenarios where we didn’t have contacts already so we started with New Hampshire, two in Long Island, now two in Florida, one in Arizona, and hopefully a few more in the future.

“88% of our kids get into top 100 universities, so it’s a good preparatory program”

The PIE: The age of your clients means the students need a lot more welfare. What does that look like in terms of the service you provide?

JMD: We not only do student advising and support, we kind of play a parental role to students and literally it’s much more of a heavy hand in the sense of ‘you need to turn up for this, you need to do that’. They’re 14-years-old and coming from half a world away; they need help to understand what to do.

We do a bit of university guidance in the sense of just making sure that they’ve applied, and we also do all the accommodation services for them. It’s all under the same roof, so we don’t farm it out to anyone, and we run our own accredited ESL programs so we went through the whole accreditation process with MSA which is Middle States Accreditation. Eighty-eight per cent of our kids get into top 100 universities, so it’s a good preparatory program.

The PIE: How does your typical UTP student differ from your typical ISC student? Is the motivation from the parents paying for the course always about academic progression or is it more to do with being more bi-cultural as well?

JMD: I think it also depends on which country we are talking about. So if we’re talking about China which is the biggest market, China is both of those answers.

First and foremost it’s the parents wanting them to go and study abroad because it’s seen as prestigious, there’s also a sort of lack of supply of good schools, or spaces for good schools in some countries, so that feeds it.

Thirdly, there’s also this idea of getting into a Western way of thinking, and that’s a major driver now.

“For us it’s all about sustainability, and there’s a lot of cashing out in the industry at the moment and doing things fast”

The PIE: Would your students be considered, ambitious, ‘go-getting’ students?

JMD: They are, and that’s also partly from recruitment, we filter that through our recruitment. Even from the beginning, we would sacrifice getting our student numbers versus getting kids who were going to help us with what we’re trying to do for them.

So that limits us actually sometimes with taking children from certain agents or even some parts of the world because they will only send their less academically-focused students abroad; we could have even more students but we decide not to on purpose.

For us it’s all about sustainability, and there’s a lot of cashing out in the industry at the moment and doing things fast. We can’t operate that way at a high school level, we don’t want to first of all but also secondly we have very young kids that we have to deal with and if you try to do rush it all comes down on you, so it’s a measured approach.

The PIE: What’s the biggest risk?

JMD: The biggest risk is always the student’s safety with them doing something they shouldn’t or being taken advantage of, so we do massive background checks on the families. The first filter is that they come from the school, so we have a really good family already, and the school can get them, but then we do background checks.

We also visit them very often so we go above and beyond what would technically be required of us.

The PIE: What is the cost of the program?

So we have a range and for the majority of our schools, the range is something like $37k to $47k, based on how much English they need.  We’re transparent about how we work. So the lower your English level coming in, the more English you’ll need to pay for, simple as that.

“There’s this idea of getting into a Western way of thinking – that’s a major driver now”

The PIE: Did the result of the US presidential election have any impact on your markets?

JMD: I thought our European and Latin American markets would tank –  we were preparing for it. We were making sure Asia was going to fill in the gap and get more students there. But it was the best year we’ve had in Europe and Latin America in our history.

Our numbers, particularly in Vietnam for visa refusals, went up this past year, that is the only thing we saw out of anything, so it’s just the visa interviewers being a little bit more strict; I don’t know if that’s a Trump thing or not.

We’ll see what happens, it’s not over yet, but thankfully so far we’ve been okay, and I can’t even believe I’m saying that a year later, but our numbers [have been] fine.

The PIE: How do you measure your success?

JMD: I think that once we started to have graduates we really started to feel like we’re doing our job. That was only four years ago. We’re starting to see students getting into UCLA, Boston University, and sometimes even with a scholarship.

 

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