Social media generally reach a wider range of US-bound international students than recruiting agents, a report produced by US non-profit research agency World Education Services has found.
Among respondents to a survey of nearly 1,600 prospective students from 115 countries, 56 per cent follow social media accounts managed by US institutions before making application choices and 32 per cent use social media to source information. Just 16 per cent use agents.
The survey also found that social media are useful for targeting all kinds of student, whereas affluent but less academic ones are most likely to use third-party agents.
US social media do not penetrate all nations equally, however. Although 88 per cent of Indian social media users log on to US-based platforms such as Facebook and Twitter daily or weekly, only 22 per cent of Chinese users do the same, opting instead for local alternatives.
The most widely used channels for gaining information about US colleges are institutional websites or networks of family and friends (used by 90 per cent and 67 per cent of those polled, respectively).
Rahul Choudaha, director of research at WES, said that many institutions needed to update their recruitment strategies to take into account the increased use of social media. However, he added, the survey also shows that they need to use such platforms more effectively.
“A lot of the time social media usage is just reposting the links from institution’s websites, but that’s not…engagement,” he said.
Dr Choudaha added that the report highlights the differences among international students, so institutions must tailor their recruitment to the kinds of student they want and are likely to attract.
Not All International Students Are the Same, published on 28 August, aims to help institutions distinguish between applicants by splitting them into four profiles: “strivers”, those with high academic preparedness but low financial resources; “strugglers”, those with low preparedness and low resources; “explorers”, those with low academic preparedness but high financial resources; and “highfliers”, who have the best of both.
The people termed in the report “highfliers”, for example, are generally attracted only to a narrow band of top-ranked institutions, whereas “explorers” and “strugglers” are less selective but require more academic assistance. “Strivers”, meanwhile, are academically well prepared but may not enrol in the US unless they receive financial aid, the report says.
The survey also found that different nations have different student profiles, with Indian students most likely to be “strivers”, Chinese students most likely to be “highfliers” and Koreans most likely to be “explorers”. Different nationalities also have different priorities, it says.
Career prospects post-graduation take precedence for around half of the students from India and China, suggesting that institutions that want to maximise their intake from those countries should highlight services such as internship opportunities or career counselling.
With many US public institutions facing cuts, universities are looking to reduce their deficits by increasing their intake of overseas students, Dr Choudaha said.
If a university wants to recruit more Chinese students, “what they can do is look at where ‘highfliers’ and ‘explorers’ go to look for information first”, he said.
The report’s conclusion that agents tend to recruit “strugglers” or “explorers” with weaker academic backgrounds has not been universally welcomed.
Will Archer, chief executive of i-graduate, a firm that tracks student perceptions on behalf of university and government clients, said its “headline-grabbing conclusions should be taken with a pinch of salt”.
“Many of the best and most selective universities use agents. Many of the best prospective students need advice on where to go,” he said. “The claim about lower academic ability is incorrect.”
Agents play a vital role in helping students to reach university, he argued, as “for the countries referenced, the vast majority of students will be coming from families without prior experience of international study”. In addition, he said, the report’s claim that high barriers of engagement are caused by agents charging substantial fees is “misleading” as “most do not”.
Mr Archer labelled the report “lightweight”, with “superficial insights. To put [its] scale into context, we’ve just taken feedback from 180,000 international students on behalf of universities that are serious about international recruitment. The report itself acknowledges its own significant limitations.”