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Going International


Robin Matross Helms



​Students from abroad have been increasingly important to American institutions’ enrollment strategies. But that’s not the whole story.


For many United States colleges and universities, increasing international student enrollment has become a strategic priority. Such students often pay full tuition, and amid state funding and other cutbacks, admissions offices are increasingly reaching across national borders in their recruiting campaigns.

But that’s not the only reason to go international. As institutions consider their place in an ever-globalizing world, many are seeking international students as a way to bring a global presence and perspective to campus, and to further institutional internationalization efforts.

Indeed, student mobility in both directions—domestic students going abroad, and international students coming in—is one of six pillars of the CIGE Model for Comprehensive Internationalization, developed by ACE’s Center for Internationalization and Global Engagement (CIGE), which delineates key areas that require attention as institutions pursue integrated, campus-wide internationalization.

Though it is important for institutions to recognize that international student recruiting alone is not sufficient to achieve internationalization, it can certainly play an important role in the process. Noting the need for thoughtful, data-driven information to inform recruiting efforts, CIGE recently hosted a webinar featuring three experts on global student mobility: Rajika Bhandari, deputy vice president of research and evaluation at the Institute of International Education (IIE); Rahul Choudaha, chief knowledge officer at World Education Services (WES); and Clay Hensley, senior director of international outreach and strategy at the College Board.

Along with their other insights, their remarks should make anyone at an American campus who recruits international students take notice.

A Growing Enrollment Pie

At the same time as the United States is wrestling with declining enrollment, higher education is expanding rapidly on a global scale. According to IIE’s Rajika Bhandari, worldwide higher education enrollment is predicted to reach 262 million—double the current level—by 2025. This expansion is expected to give rise to a commensurate increase in the number of globally mobile students in the coming years. While the period of 1975 to 2011 saw incremental increases, Bhandari predicts that between 2011 and 2025, the number of globally mobile students will increase nearly twofold—mirroring overall enrollment trends.

Historically, the United States has been a top destination for international students, and it continues to attract a healthy proportion of the globally mobile student population. Data from IIE’s annual Open Doors survey, which is supported by a grant from the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, indicates that the number of international students studying in the United States has increased for seven consecutive years: Collectively, U.S. colleges and universities now host 40 percent more international students than they did 10 years ago. According to Hensley, international traffic to the College Board’s college planning website, which provides detailed information on U.S. colleges and universities, has shown impressive growth in recent years. Between May 2013 and April 2014, over 8 million visitors from more than 200 countries and territories accessed the site.

Recognizing the academic, cultural, and economic benefits of enrolling international students, however, countries around the world are implementing aggressive strategies to attract students from abroad and acquire their own piece of the growing student mobility “pie.” To maintain upward growth rates, higher education leaders in the United States need to understand the details behind global mobility trends, and design strategies to attract—and, importantly, retain—qualified international students who are likely to thrive and succeed in their unique institutional contexts.

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Demographic Details, Student Priorities, and Recruiting Strategies

Analyzing data from Open Doors as well as other sources, Bhandari and Hensley cited a number of demographic details, shifting priorities and characteristics, and emerging trends among international students that are likely to affect enrollment patterns in the coming years. These include:

  • The growth in international student enrollment in the United States since 2006 has been fueled largely by increases in the number of students from three countries: China, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam. Due in part to government scholarship programs for outbound students, countries such as Oman, Iraq, Kuwait, Iran, and Brazil are emerging as significant senders of students to the United States. Hensley suggests the Persian Gulf, South America, Southeast Asia, and West Africa are also regions to watch in the future.

  • In recent years, the number of international undergraduate students studying in the United States has surpassed the number of international graduate students. Business and engineering are the top fields of study for students at both levels; engineering predominates among graduate students, while business is more popular among undergraduates. Graduate students are largely concentrated in doctoral institutions, with some representation in master’s institutions, but undergraduates study at a broader range of institution types, including two-year colleges, which account for 22 percent of international undergraduate enrollment in the United States.

  • Eighty-one percent of international undergraduates are supported by personal funds, compared with just over half (51 percent) of graduate students, who rely more heavily on funding from the receiving institution. While international undergraduates are still typically self-funded, increasingly, according to Bhandari, they are “savvy consumers with a focus on ROI.” Hensley noted that in order to attract value-attuned students, more U.S. institutions are allocating financial aid to international undergraduates: The College Board’s data indicates that the total amount awarded by U.S. institutions went from $582 million in 2008–09 to $938 million in 2012–13, an increase of 13 percent.

While worldwide trends can help U.S. institutions identify emerging opportunities, it is also important for colleges and universities to consider how the needs and profiles of the international students they are recruiting align with institutional priorities and resources. Choudaha segments the international undergraduate student market into four specific categories based on academic preparedness and financial need, and identifies their priorities in selecting a U.S. institution (see graphic below).

Choudaha advises colleges and universities to consider their mission and overall enrollment objectives in determining which segment of international students—in terms of academic preparation and financial need, as well as other factors such as potential contributions to geographically balanced campus diversity—will be the best fit for their own institutions. Marketing messages and recruiting resources should then be focused on reaching those particular students.

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A Comprehensive Approach

While an effective international student recruiting strategy can bolster overall enrollment—an attractive prospect in the current era—it is important for institutions to recognize that filling seats with international students carries a responsibility to provide those students with a top-quality postsecondary experience. This includes a relevant curriculum, academic and personal support services that meet their specific needs, co-curricular activities that facilitate interaction with domestic students and integration into campus life, as well as faculty and staff who are attuned to cross-cultural issues. Well-integrated international students can, in turn, advance internationalization efforts even further—a virtuous cycle.

Though it requires an investment of time and resources, the payoff of this comprehensive approach extends well beyond added tuition revenue: For colleges and universities that take a long-term view, international student recruiting becomes not just a way to fill seats, but an integral part of institutional strategies to maintain relevance and prepare students for the globalized world of the twenty-first century. More broadly still, the relationships that result when faculty and students of different backgrounds are brought together in a truly internationalized learning environment contribute to mutual understanding and create connections that may ultimately result in a more collaborative, tolerant, and peaceful world.

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An on-demand webinar on internationalization is available at

Robin Matross Helms is the associate director for research in ACE’s Center for Internationalization and Global Engagement.

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