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How US universities can take a localised approach to international student recruitment in 2021

In an international higher education sector that’s increasingly keen on data storytelling, the emergence of new global trends is almost guaranteed to make headlines. And of course, 2020 was a year full of seismic shocks and sudden shifts in international student mobility.

While overall applications to the USA declined, BridgeU noticed small increases in applications from students in locations in Europe, as well as cities in India and North and West Africa. Photo: pexels

"The best relationships are created by universities becoming an integral component of an international schools’ university and careers guidance program"

Like many of our peers and colleagues, adaptation in 2020 meant making sense of these shifts and, more importantly, helping our school and university partners to navigate them. Specifically, we sought to understand how Covid-19 had affected the higher education enrolment plans of aspiring undergraduate students from across our network of international schools.

And like many of our peers and colleagues, the story we kept coming back to was the adverse effect that Covid-19 had on the United States as an international study destination.

Unsurprisingly, the USA has always been one of the most popular destinations for international students who use the BridgeU platform to discover, research and apply to a range of global higher education destinations.

As 2020 drew to a close, we were keen to understand how the disruption caused by Covid-19 would affect the next cohort of international students as they progressed through the 2020/21 application cycle.

This culminated in our most recent analysis of how international students’ applications to the USA changed, year on year, between 2020 and 2021. 

When we looked at the global story, many of our findings chimed with the pre-existing narrative – across our cohort of 55,000 international students, applications to the USA had declined year on year.

But across the 2020/21 application cycle, our analysis of international students’ US application preferences has uncovered a myriad of equally interesting and arguably more instructive local stories.

For example, while overall applications to the USA declined, we noticed a small increase of 4% in applications from students based in Europe. This led us to question whether Brexit, combined with the introduction of test-optional policies in the USA, has meant European international students are beginning to shift their focus to the other side of the Atlantic.

On other continents, local and regional data also told a more interesting story. For example, international students in North and West Africa were more likely to apply to a US university in 2021, with schools in Nigeria, Tunisia, Zimbabwe and Cote d’Ivoire reporting the highest year on year increases.

A localised approach to international student recruitment also involves paying closer attention to what’s going on in global cities around the world.

Let’s look at India as a case study. The country itself saw a modest increase of 9% in US applications. But a closer look at schools in specific Indian cities revealed that Hyderabad, with a 44% increase in applications, and Jaipur, with a 43% increase, were the regional markets with the most potential growth in 2021.

But data can only form one part of a successful international recruitment strategy. So how else can admissions teams at US institutions take a localised approach as they attempt to adapt to the new, post-Covid world?

Focus on long-lasting, meaningful relationships with counsellors

Now more than ever, counsellors working in international schools value a long-lasting, collaborative relationship with university reps. In the past year, it’s been our experience that the best relationships are created by universities becoming an integral component of an international schools’ university and careers guidance program.

“Universities must adapt to the needs of the different curricula”

This in turn empowers school counsellors to create high value educational events that can give their international students a much needed strategic overview of the higher education options at their fingertips.

Align with the needs of the international school’s curriculum

A truly localised approach to international student recruitment means that universities must adapt to the needs of the different curricula. University visits, virtual or otherwise, will be most successful if they’re adapted to the unique culture, interests and aspirations of the student body in a given school.

For both US universities, and higher education institutions across the world, a truly forward looking approach to international student recruitment will require, to coin an old phrase, thinking globally but acting locally.

About the author:

James Leach is Senior Content Writer at BridgeU, the market-leading provider of university and careers guidance services for international schools. BridgeU works with schools in 120 countries and also helps universities worldwide to partner with the largest community of counsellors and guidance professionals, ensuring students have access to the widest range of best-fit higher education options & career pathways.

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