22 min read

Episode 17—The Challenges of Recruiting International Students


Over the past half decade, the United States has increasingly shown the world that international students may have a difficult time enrolling in a US college or university. 

From increased Federal regulations, eroding international diplomatic relations, elevated social/cultural tensions, an increase in an isolationist narrative, and the ongoing global COVID 19 Pandemic, international students are seeing US higher education as a less and less attractive option for their college degree. 

I will discuss the ongoing challenges of the "Perfect Storm" with Melanie Gottlieb, Interim Executive Director of AACRAO, and explore the possibility of a light at the end of the tunnel for colleges to once again attract and enroll international students.


Jay Fedje: [00:00:00] Welcome to the Enrollment Edge Podcast for college enrollment and marketing leaders. I'm your host Jay Fedje, Enrollment Edge is sponsored by enrollmentFUEL, a trusted full-service student search and marketing partner to colleges and universities across the country. If you'd like to learn more about enrollment tool services, or you have questions about today's episode, we've included a link to our website in the show notes. You can also email us at edge@enrollmentfuel.com. We'd love to hear what you think. You can help us by subscribing to our podcast, sharing it with your friends and leaving a five-star review on apple podcasts. On today's Enrollment Edge I have a conversation with Melanie Gottlieb Interim Executive Director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers and thankfully we've abbreviated that to ACRO. Melanie is a 24-year veteran in higher education and has recently moved into a leadership role at ACRO. We'll be talking about the current environment that colleges and universities are navigating to recruit international students. Many enrollment managers have relied heavily on the enrollment and revenue of international students at their schools, yet as Melanie and I will discuss the past four years have proven that international recruitment is both fragile and unpredictable and this past year, the pandemic has nearly put a complete stop on all international students coming to the US for their college degree. Economic challenges, cultural stigma, immigration restriction, tense foreign policy relations, and the complications of a global pandemic have created a perfect storm of issues that make it very difficult to recruit international students, Melanie, and I will discuss those challenges, international competition for students and what the future of international student recruitment looks like. Welcome to the Enrollment Edge Melanie, we're talking today with Melanie Gottlieb, interim executive director of ACRO and we're talking about international recruitment enrollment of international students and everything related to that topic, Melanie, welcome to the Enrollment Edge.

Melanie Gottlieb: [00:02:25] Thanks so much, Jay, I'm really glad to be here.

Jay Fedje: [00:02:28] We started to pull this conversation together some time ago. One of the areas, the challenges that I've seen as I recruited international students there's not just one or two issues. There seems to be and to quote an article from last fall, a perfect storm of so many issues, challenges, colleges have to to recruit international students. Whereas, in the past it was just trying to find them and now it's not just trying to find them. It's so many challenges we face in higher education. The two perceptions here are international students are important to colleges. To many colleges, they are critically important to their enrollment and for many colleges without international students and without that population, they wouldn't be nearly as healthy. So from your seat what are the issues that many colleges are facing right now in recruiting internationally? There's been many changes over the past year, but what do you see as the big challenges that are facing colleges?

Melanie Gottlieb: [00:03:31] So I would say that let's start with placing the context within which colleges and universities are recruiting international students and that first context is a sector overall in that is at risk. So we are seeing domestically demographic shifts that say that there are fewer students enrolling are the birth rate has gone down. There are fewer students who are graduating and we're looking at an enrollment cliff. So that is increased pressure, increased competition domestically, and lots of institutions are looking then to fill the gap in their recruitment cycles. They're looking to recruit more broadly nationally and to recruit more broadly internationally. So they have an income gap that they have a revenue gap that they need to fill, additionally US higher education is really interested in creating a global citizen and so there's also this desire to ensure that the classes that are recruited are global in nature, that US students get exposed to the diversity of thought that international students will bring to campus and so it is this dual thinking around wanting to recruit international students. The challenge of course, is that over the last four years there have been a number of barriers to that ending of course, with the pandemic where mobility in general has shut down. So restarting that international recruitment machine is not simple. We have even at the most basic level if you can find the students and if you can identify them, get them to commit to coming. We have challenges in just getting sort of the embassy role back into a normal processing time. We have an added role of pandemic related issues around the vaccine, access to the vaccine is not global at this point. The US is in a really great shape other areas of the world are still playing catch up and still have much, much lower percentages of vaccinated people and the US in US institutions we're seeing 40% of US institutions are requiring vaccination. So it's layers upon layers of barriers, even once you can find those students.

Jay Fedje: [00:06:19] There's a couple of tension points here. You mentioned 40% of schools at this point are requiring vaccines. I just listened to another podcast that was talking about the Olympics and the Japanese culture, Japan right now is less than 10% fully vaccined and if that's the case, and we look at around the globe and those countries that would struggle to acquire vaccines or even as you as you mentioned before have vaccines, but they're not completely authorized by the United States and recognized by the United States. So they may be giving vaccines, but they're not those that the United States would say are viable. How are colleges going to move around that those aren't restrictions based upon maybe rules that they can change. How do you see them managing that?

Melanie Gottlieb: [00:07:09] To be honest, I think colleges are still figuring that out right now. They're still figuring out what it's going to look like to have all of their students back on campuses, because not all colleges closed, but the vast majority of schools had a majority of their populations offsite and so the reopening of campuses, faculty and staff are just starting to come back. We're talking to lots of institutions about how over the summer their schedules are flexing and people are starting to come back. So they don't even really know how this is all fully going to work with the domestic population. Now institutions have been requiring vaccines, for decades students want to come and live on campus they've got to get their vaccinations. College students all over the country go get a physical over the summer. They catch up on any vaccinations they're missing and they come through. Requiring a set of vaccinations from international students has always also been a little bit more complicated and often students would come into the country and they'd get tested and they'd get whatever catch-up vaccinations that they should have. This is going to be something that they're going to have to do. If the vaccine that the student received is not on the W H O approved list, which we're seeing some of that coming out of India, which is a top sending country. There's a big question about what an institution is going to do and I don't think anyone has come up with a viable solution at this point, because we're not sure is it, are they going to make them take a more readily available vaccine that is available here in the us? Perhaps questions about whether or not that's safe. Double vaccines is not something that's been tested. I have not heard institutions resolving this yet. I think that health offices, international recruitment offices are going to be deep in conversation all summer, trying to come up with a policy and a practice that's safe and viable and I think that's going to look different school by school. I'm not sure that there's going to be a standard across the board policy because state policies are going to be different in terms of what is allowed to be required.

Jay Fedje: [00:09:37] Back in the day when I recruited international students there were country by country, maybe even as much as region by region complications that changed whether we were able to pull students from a country or from a region well, where we had to shift focus to a different country or different region. Most recently within the past, as you mentioned, four years, there have been global problems with and challenges. Immigration status and visa status and administration policy that restricted challenged international students from coming economic challenges from country to country are typically a part of the landscape, but then you add those diplomatic relations in between countries that were tense at times, or completely silent at times, they went into kind of a quiet phase where countries weren't were sending students back and forth maybe, but then you add this pandemic piece. If we can figure the vaccine out of the pandemic, there's still other challenges aren't there and how do you see the difference between this administration's policies and the previous administration's policies towards international students?

Melanie Gottlieb: [00:10:56] Last administration policies absolutely were viewed and have been viewed through, across the international education field as I would say placing barriers to the incoming flow of international students absolutely. That was the case. This administration certainly is not actively placing barriers, but it's not as though you can wave a magic wand and make the last four years disappear. When you consider the fact that international student mobility is a global competitive marketplace. That countries like Australia, Canada regions like the European higher education area are growing their ability to recruit international students and that ability in most cases is happening at national level there is a national policy to attract global talent into their education systems. This is new and its been evolving. But the US has been at the top of the international student recruitment game for decades without a lot of competition and we are now in an environment where there is pretty heavy competition. You look at a student visa policies or an international students ability to work. For example in the U S that benefit of OPT for international students has been a fantastic thing. There are other countries who are upping their game and giving even better benefits and so that's one of the competitive factors that we need to think about. We also have to look at the kinds of policies, for example, China is one of our greatest sending countries it's in the top and there are lots of institutions who have depended upon the China student audience to build their international recruitment plans. That's never been a recommended practice to put all of your recruitment eggs in one basket, but it happens and it happens rather quickly. Institutions don't realize how quickly it happens and then they're dependent on those dollars. They build programs that are really tailored to those particular audiences and I would say our political relationship with China. Is still a question, quite tense. In addition, China sees that their students are coming to the US. They're building competition even internally to keep those students at home. There are more and more English programs in China international programs in China, and they'd like to keep those dollars at home and they'd like to keep those students at home and so these particular kinds of pressures combined or layered on top of the pandemic. Paints a picture that's actually quite competitive in the marketplace and not necessarily hugely favorable to the US.

Jay Fedje: [00:14:26] Do you see that there is a possibility you mentioned a national policy towards recruiting international students bringing in international talent. Do you see the US moving in that direction? We have, it seems US educational institutions are siloed and so competitive with one another than an international policy would have some pretty big challenges to deploy that. Do you see administration moving in that direction?

Melanie Gottlieb: [00:14:58] One of the strengths of US higher education that we tout all the time is it's highly independent, highly decentralized nature and that is a strength. It means that we can offer educational programs really locally that we can be very responsive to individual local marketplaces. But the flip side of that is that it is really difficult to do something at a national level. I've seen some really great programs come out of, say, for example, the US department of commerce. they do state cooperative organizations. They help states market international student enrollment in their state, and there are quite a few. I want to say there are there's not one in every state, but there are quite a few states that give some level of marketability. We have we have such a large country that at least marketing a state and even, If you think about marketing, the states that are lesser known, that international students know California, they know New York,  they know the two coasts, but the middle, there are a lot of states in the middle and those states need some recognition so that international students can know Michigan and understand where it is. Those kinds of programs work quite well. I do know that the department of state does quite a lot of advocacy work and you look at programs like Education USA, where we have in-country professionals who can promote US higher education to the local audience in country and those are really excellent national resources. They don't quite hit the level of support that say Australia or the UK are going to be able to do because they have a highly organized national recruitment agenda. So I don't see the US being able to do that without a significant change in policy from the administration and even if the administration chose to do that, I don't know that US higher ed. could get in line in that same way. Because of our highly decentralized, highly independent nature, the elite institutions they have their own individual name recognition. They don't have a need to really be a part of a larger marketing effort, but it's the mid tier and the smaller institutions where there still is significant capacity to absorb international students and to create opportunities for that enrollment. Those are the institutions that would benefit from that kind of attention. But also they're often the institutions that can't really afford to do it on their own.

Jay Fedje: [00:18:08] So are there associations like yours ACRO that are out in front? Do you see organizations, associations that are advocating for that middle group and that small group in ways that are meaningful to help them recruit or help them build pathways to international recruitment?

Melanie Gottlieb: [00:18:30] There are a number of ways that institutions are individually or organizations are individually thinking about pathways. I will start actually by saying that mid-tier ability is something that the department of state has consistently in speaking engagements shared with international audiences and so that's there's an administration level recognition that capacity exists and so that's a positive all of the other pathway work really tends to be focused on either recruitment agency kinds of programs. Lots of innovative models there but I haven't seen anything. That's really a national effort. I think we all who are involved in recruitment can agree that is something has significant opportunity, but in this particular environment right now, it's really difficult for an institution to prioritize the amount of resources it's going to need to make that happen.

Jay Fedje: [00:19:42] It's expensive to recruit internationally and it takes a long time.  What I would always look at is institutional trust to build with other influencers or organizations abroad that would trust my school that would trust our region and they would look for a number of elements of evidence. Can I trust this?  Are we doing what we say we're going to do in terms of quality of education, but is the school embracing to international students? There's so many levels of support for international students, we're talking about. The challenge is to bring students here, but to keep students internationally, the cultural differences, the language differences there is now, concerns about acceptance of international students from lots of other cultures right now. There's new challenges to that and so consequently I feel like there are trust pathways that need to take place as well and schools need to be abroad and not just rely on an agent in another country. They have to have a physical presence there occasionally to show that they're invested in international students and not just in recruiting them, but keeping them and educating those students well and doing what they promised to do and provided quality education are there other countries. Do you think that they're building those trust pathways better? You mentioned Australia and Canada as two countries that seem to be developing a better international relationship to international students are there other countries or what is Canada and Australia doing right now that is so successful?

Melanie Gottlieb: [00:21:18] If I look at Australia, Australia has been a recruitment and up-and-coming recruitment force really for decades. If you remember, even 10 or 15 years ago, you go to the NAFSA conference and you would see, Australia would have they're everywhere. They were recruiting. They have a limited number of institutions and so it's much easier to organize, the smaller number of institutions that are available in a country and have them all contribute and feel as though they're getting equal billing and so that kind of equal messaging, you get all of the institutions to say, this is a good idea. Get some national support behind it, get some institutional support behind it. That kind of messaging really has resonated very well and they have very easily been able to tap into the Asian market, which is really very much. Where we are fairly dependent and well-invested as well in terms of recruitment efforts. So that's one example, we have, 4,600 institutions in the US, right? There's no organizing factor to get the entire national higher education system behind one particular marketing message. It's just not possible and that's, I think why the department of the department of commerce has decided to tackle it from a state-by-state perspective, because at least the institutions in the state, you can agree to what is the experience in our state. In Canada, it is provincial and institution based, but they have done quite a lot to expand the ability to work and to give meaningful pathways to citizenship. We're quite clear when you come to the US as an international student, you are here in as a non-immigrant and you can come and you can work for a couple of years in your field and contribute to the economy and get valuable experience that you can then go home. That's very much been the way that we have marketed higher education. It has worked very well, but we also have seen, there are a lot of students who come here and they want to stay for longer amounts of time.  Now they get jobs and that transition from your student visa to your practical training and then into an employment-based visa is not simple. It's complicated, it's expensive and it's not necessarily guaranteed. Those spots are highly contested. There are caps on those visas and you might not get to stay so that, that can be of a detriment to our recruitment efforts in some ways. In other ways we do want to see development happen in other countries and so we want great minds to come here and work here, but we also want some of them to go home and spread that as well. It helps the local economy. It also helps US foreign policy. We want people who have great experiences in the US to be educated, to get jobs, and then to go be leaders in their own home countries, because that ultimately helps overall US foreign policy. So there are pros and cons there but it's definitely a challenge in the marketplace.

Jay Fedje: [00:25:07] You talked about US foreign policy and mentioned the term echo, you mentioned the word echo of the previous administration and their foreign policy as we move into this administration, do you see evidence at this point that those. Those relationships the foreign diplomacy is improving enough that we'll, if we do pass the hurdles of vaccines and we do pass the hurdles of from policy, do we, do you see some hope in that? We're regaining relationships with countries that we've had maybe some strain with.

Melanie Gottlieb: [00:25:39] I would say yes and no. I absolutely see some hope. We've seen the rollback of a number of targeted visa problems we have. We're not seeing the kind of inflammatory rhetoric that we saw in the previous administration. That's all really positive. Okay. I hesitate to say that it's going to snap right back, because I think about if I'm a parent and I'm going to send my child to another country quite far away, I want to know that they're going to be safe and I want to know that I'm spending my money wisely and while US higher education is arguably the best system in the world, lots of international students have benefited from coming at the same time. If we were able to go down. That sort of new uncomfortable path so quickly that I think, memories are not short. Those memories are going to linger for a while and I think that we're going to have to regain that layer of trust that we lost over the last four years and so sometimes if you have to choose between, if what you're trying to get as a world-class education in an English speaking country with strong opportunities for your student to participate in the economy and get a job, the U S is not the only option. It might be your first choice because of all of the benefits, but. You might still have some lingering concerns and so you might choose to go to another country that offers almost the same experience.

Jay Fedje: [00:27:47] With probably far fewer barriers and some advantages as well.

Melanie Gottlieb: [00:27:51] Correct. So I think while we are moving in the right direction, I don't think that it's going to be a fast bounce back and then I look at even if from a perceptual standpoint, we can get over that hump with our families overseas. The visa issuance machine has not yet fully come back. If you look at recent data that has come out about, excuse me, about visa issuance over, the current week and I would say, almost it looks like, at least 30% of visa offices have significant delays, and it's going to take some time for those offices to come back. Part of that is pandemic. Those areas are not necessarily ready to have everything opened back up again and so I think it's going to be a year, two years, maybe three years before we can really have a sense of where's the level point.

Jay Fedje: [00:28:56] So if I'm an enrollment manager and I'm listening to this podcast I think I want to go back to my cabinet and talk about plans. What are the alternate plans to international recruitment? Because it seems like you said it's going to be a slow, restart, a slow regaining of trust, a slow regaining of conversation relationships, but also other countries have stepped up and they're taking larger percentages of international students.  In a coordinated, intentional way. If I'm an enrollment manager, what what's the advice that you would you'd give me, what advice would you give me on looking for international students or trying to create pathways that would be sustainable.

Melanie Gottlieb: [00:29:45] The first thing I'd say is the good news is that, the pandemic impacted the globe. So we're not alone in that. I would remind my cabinet that developing a market is not a short-term product. It takes at least three years to establish a marketplace. So this pause in mobility could be viewed as an opportunity and I would think about that opportunity as an opportunity to reassess, where do we think our opportunities are. Institution by institution. Where are your strengths? Where are your relationships and how can you best capitalize on those relationships? But at the same time, how can you ensure that portfolio is diverse? Let's not put all of our eggs in the China basket or the Saudi basket. Let's actually. Holistically about the globe, use the data that we have available to us through open doors to look at where are the opportunities, and then use this pause time to strengthen the relationships that we have. The pandemic has given us a whole new set of tools and a whole new way to think about recruitment and while yes, traveling to a place and sitting down with a student one-on-one face-to-face or with a student in their family, one-on-one face-to-face is absolutely a preferred way to make a connection and build that trust. But we've learned that we can do. Just about everything virtually over the last year, our tools have gotten better and we've gotten more savvy about it. So build intentional virtual pathways, build virtual ways into your program to connect with learners. One-on-one of course, what that means is that you're going to have to think about your staffing model. You're going to have to think about how you ensure that you've got people who are working in the time zones of the areas that you are recruiting. You might have to think about reorganizing the way that your team works so that you can ensure that you're meeting students at a time when they can meet with you or their families can meet with you. Education USA has done a tremendous amount of virtual programming and virtual opportunities. They've really stepped that up over the last year and a half and there are lots of opportunities there to utilize those in-person in country advisors, to your advantage, to help you identify students who are the right fit. We're at a place where we might have to rethink our recruitment methods and we may have to rely for awhile on more armchair recruitment than perhaps we've done in the past and then let's use our travel dollars in the smartest way as possible and so let's only go to the places where we think we're going to yield the most.

Jay Fedje: [00:33:33] I love this idea that there is a plan there are ways to be able to reestablish some of those connections and I really hear you with the virtual setting. There were moments in time. I think that every admissions office. This is really a second-class version of what we're trying to do with an event or showcase our campus, but they did get better. Those virtual moments where students could see a college and choose a college without ever even setting foot on them. I think that really did improve over the time of the pandemic. So there was opportunities that were created there, but what I'm hearing from you is there's two to three years of a reset that trying to get back to normal. Things don't always go to plan, right? So there's two, three years to plan that we're probably not going to be at the same place where we were. There's other new recruitment methods that we need to embrace and the ideology of recruiting may need to change. We may not see ourselves face to face, at least on the ground, but we need to be able to do other things and renew pathways. I think that the idea of renewing pathways and renewing the idea of building trust in different ways is significant in this conversation, because I think that there is a lot to repair from conversations that I've had and that I've heard and articles, there is a tremendous amount of work we need to do to repair relationships and trust with The country with our regions and states a college may certainly be accepting of students, but maybe the community is not of international students. So while the community is not accepting, that really does reflect on that college and so there is plenty to repair, but if you're looking out ahead of the next few years I'm an enrollment manager and I need to plan the article that I referred to earlier had 43% decrease in fall. New student, international enrollment, 43% is  gigantic and the fact is I think if it was higher than that, I don't think I'd be surprised either because there was so many international students that had so many different challenges to get to the school. Do you see that continuing, if I'm planning my enrollment ahead of time, am I seeing 43% by seeing less than that? Or am I seeing more than that, that that I need to plan for?

Melanie Gottlieb: [00:35:55] From an enrollment management perspective, stepping back outside of just the international student view we have been recommending for some time now that institutions need to take a really hard look at their enrollment pictures in our current demographic situation. There is no way the math doesn't work for every institution to grow and honestly, that's the mandate, right? you come into an enrollment management role or an international recruitment role and your mandate is to get more. We want more students. We want better students and that's really what you're asked to do and I think that we have to as institutions be a little self-reflective and we need to look at what's our mission. What are our core values? Who do we serve and who do we want to serve? Where are our strengths? How do we capitalize them? And what is a realistic picture of our enrollment.  International students absolutely are going to be a part of that. We have a clear national commitment to enrolling international students. We have a clear sort of national shared value in higher education of the richness and diversity and the importance of it. But we can't use international students to fill the growth gap because that's not healthy or sustainable and we might argue that it would be wise for an institution to look carefully at its enrollment numbers and to think about strategically. What size should we be? And what could we maintain instead of shooting for the really high enrollment number and perhaps not making it or shooting for a really high enrollment number and filling it entirely with a bunch of students from one region that creates a bubble that could burst. Let's actually step back and think realistically about what makes sense. That's not an easy conversation. It's not a popular conversation. But I think we're in a place where, as a sector, it's a conversation we need to have, and that's not about giving up, primacy in the marketplace or seeding to other countries. What we have would be our market. It's really about being realistic at an institutional level and as a sector it's just not sustainable.

Jay Fedje: [00:38:59] And so fragile in so many different ways and over the years we've known the fragile nature of international recruiting the strength of the dollar was in that country and of the relationship with that country in our foreign policy, but then add things like pandemics and suddenly the house of cards falls and. To repair that and build that is going to be a challenge. But I think the challenge for many enrollment managers will be convincing boards and chief financial officers that the international markets aren't the cash cow that we really want them. That we can't count on them because we never really could count on them. But we can't count on them certainly now and for the foreseeable future, we really do have a problem in predicting enrollment growth. Like you said, filling the gap enrollment gap is just not going to happen with international students for the foreseeable future and maybe we are fooling ourselves to begin with that we were trying to fill that gap in the first place.

Melanie Gottlieb: [00:39:57] I think we just have to approach it with a more realistic sense. I, again, I don't want to come out of this thinking it's gloom and doom because it's not I don't think that we're going to be undesirable as a location. We have a strong education system. With a lot of pluses, but I think that we have to rethink our approach and we need to do it within the global context of the multiple pressures that are impacting that market and again, the whole globe. Is coming out of the pandemic, we have our own additional layer of special challenges around culture, around politics and all of those pieces. But that kind of repair work is going to take a little bit of time. But I think we can take this pause to be realistic and really assess and build really targeted. Relationships, and we can do it now without necessarily having to travel to those places because that's the norm at the moment. So let's take advantage of this time to really strengthen those pathways. I think we'll be the better for it. But it's not necessarily what everyone wants to hear.

Jay Fedje: [00:41:22] We've been talking to Melanie Gottlieb Interim Executive Director, ACRO about international recruitment and the new reality of recruiting international students that isn't necessarily that new but really does have some challenges to it. Melanie, we just appreciate being having you on the show today and being able to talk this through with you. Your experience has been extremely valuable.

Melanie Gottlieb: [00:41:44] Thanks so much, Jay.

Jay Fedje: [00:41:50] You've been listening to the Enrollment Edge Podcast, Enrollment Edge is sponsored by enrollmentFUEL, a full-service student search and marketing partner to colleges and universities. If you're listening on apple podcasts, please give us a five-star rating. Your feedback will help us remain relevant and on the edge, the Enrollment Edge is produced by Alison Walls. I'm your host, Jay Fedje thanks for listening.