US fights to take back the power in the overseas market

Universities use cash, partnerships and recruiters to make up lost ground. Jon Marcus reports

July 28, 2010

For almost 10 years, post-September 11 visa restrictions have combined with high tuition costs to slow one of America’s most reliable export markets: higher education. Growth in the number of international students coming to the US plateaued as other countries gleefully snatched them up.

Now American institutions are fighting back, spurred by bottom-line considerations. They have finally shaken off their one-time complacency that the cachet of the US academy was so strong that international students would keep coming, no matter what.

With a speed and focus not always characteristic of the sector, American universities have started to target foreign students more aggressively, offering scholarships as inducements, sealing deals with partner institutions in growth areas such as China, and for the first time paying commission to private recruiters.

This aggressive approach is starting to pay off: the number of international students American universities are attracting is rising again at double-digit rates – up 10 per cent two years ago and 16 per cent last year.

It is a concerted campaign that led last month to the first meeting of American admissions and enrolment-management officials convened by an arm of the US State Department. They met in Washington to discuss further enhancing the nation’s share of the $45 billion a year international education market. The conference almost immediately filled its quota of 200 attending institutions.

Fifty-seven per cent of US universities responding to a survey by the Institute of International Education say that they are taking steps to recruit more international students.

“In the American model, if there is a buck to be made, American energy will drive to it,” said Jonathan Burdick, dean of admissions and financial aid at the University of Rochester in upstate New York.

Rochester has increased its number of international students by 53 per cent this year compared with 2009, and overseas students now comprise more than 10 per cent of its overall enrolment.

“Frankly, it is a direct revenue proposition,” he said. “The average revenue from a Chinese student we enrol is more than the average revenue from an American student.”

This is because Americans are eligible for financial aid, whereas international students or their governments typically pay full tuition.

Universities’ desire to increase international-student recruitment is also driven by a wish to make their campuses more diverse, Mr Burdick said, which in part is because diversity has become a selling point to American students.

“They need to know what it is going to be like rubbing elbows with competitors in Mumbai,” he added. “Diversity is the new quality.”

And international students not only fill seats and pay tuition: their presence on campus is an enticement for Americans at a time when the number of traditional-age US university applicants is declining in some states.

Cash incentives

If international students are injecting badly needed revenue into the academy, it in turn has started ­using money to attract them. Some universities are offering scholarships to foreign students to offset the high cost of tuition – something they have never done before.

One of the reasons behind the move is that US universities are casting their nets more widely in non-traditional markets such as Africa and South America, where students are less able to afford American tuition fees than their counterparts in Europe, South Asia and the Middle East.

“Financially it is a much broader group of students than we have been able to bring in before,” said Jim Miller, dean of admissions at Brown University, which has begun to offer such incentives to international undergraduates.

“We are finding kids who need financial aid and they are phenomenally talented.”

The students are responding. Rochester, for example, makes a dozen scholarships available to international students a year. So many applied for the money this year that the formula has had to be redrawn to limit the numbers who qualify in the future.

Twenty-five per cent of the Berklee College of Music’s student body already hail from overseas, but it has even loftier ambitions.

Two years ago, the Boston-based institution began offering $1 million a year in scholarships to African students. It attracted so many applicants that its annual audition visit to the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, in late June and early July had to be expanded from two days to three. Even then, it was unable to accommodate everyone who asked to try out.

Elsewhere, the University of Minnesota has reversed a 50 per cent slide in international enrolment by offering $500,000 worth of scholarships.

Competing with international rivals

Some universities have opted to compete with international rivals by paying commission to private recruiters. This is controversial, as US universities are prohibited by law from doing so domestically, and the National Association for College Admissions Counseling frowns on the practice.

Nevertheless, smaller institutions are being pushed into doing so anyway, said Michael Fekete, director of international-student services at Lewis University near Chicago.

A Catholic university with 4,000 students, Lewis hired international-recruitment firm IDP Education, a move that paid off: enquiries and applications from international students have increased by 40 per cent.

“In a general sense, you can’t ignore revenue as an issue,” Mr Fekete said. “Let’s be pragmatic. I have learned to accept and appreciate a thoughtful business-model approach to higher education, and that, I think, is the tectonic shift that is going on in the US.”

Another strategy being pursued by some universities is partnering institutions abroad, agreements that lock students into spending two years in the US.

For example, the public University of Nebraska-Lincoln has arrange­ments in which Chinese students spend two years at one of two domestic universities, learning, among other things, English. They then transfer to the US institution to complete their undergraduate degrees.

Nebraska-Lincoln was particularly motivated by the need to bolster its enrolment, said David Wilson, associate vice-chancellor for curriculum and teaching in academic affairs, because the number of high-school graduates in the Midwestern state is declining.

“Increasingly we have had to look beyond our own borders to diversify and sustain ourselves,” he explained.

Universities in places such as the Midwest have to work harder than their more famous counterparts, Dr Wilson added.

“Everybody knows about Harvard, Brown, Chicago and Berkeley,” he said. “But many state schools in the middle of the country are not on the radar. We have to sell ourselves a little more aggressively.”

Joining forces

And they are doing so in groups. Universities in various states have banded together to promote themselves under banners such as Discover Ohio, Destination Indiana and One Big Campus, a collaboration of universities in Philadelphia.

“This is very new for US higher education. It used to be that every institution saw every other institution as a competitor for international education,” said Peggy Blumenthal, vice-president of the Institute of International Education.

“People are beginning to realise that students come to the US for a variety of reasons, and one might be that there is an area of the country they want to be in. Once they get the students’ attention, the students will pick the schools they like.”

Mr Miller added: “All of us are very conscious of the fact that what we do, we do as well as or better than most places in the world. And even as we are concerned about our self-interest in the world, we’re also concerned about the [US] brand.”

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