Beyond More of the Same: The Top Four Emerging Markets for International Student Recruitment

Today, almost one in two international students in the United States is from China, India, or South Korea. This has led an increasing number of higher education institutions (HEIs) to seek out international students from a broader range of countries as they look to diversify their student bodies. To this end, HEIs must not only identify new emerging markets, but also balance recruitment opportunities with the potential risks and uncertainties of expanding their recruitment efforts.

While there is increasing interest in recruiting from emerging markets, the identification of target countries is often based on anecdotal evidence, a method that is neither efficient nor cost-effective. In this article—derived from a longer research report—we identify four key emerging markets and offer near-term strategies to guide U.S. institutions in successfully nurturing these markets.

The study addresses the following three questions:

  1. Other than the largest markets of China, India and Korea, from which emerging markets should institutions recruit?
  2. What makes these emerging markets promising for recruitment?
  3. How can institutions navigate these emerging markets to achieve their recruitment goals?

To find answers to these questions, we employed the Delphi method—a mixed method forecasting technique based on the anonymity and expertise of participants—conducting two rounds of surveys with higher education experts in the field of international recruitment.

Below are snapshots of the key findings from the survey.

The Top Four Emerging Markets

U.S. institutions should increase their near-term recruitment efforts in the following four emerging markets, listed in order of importance. Contextual and background information for each market are summarized below.

1. Saudi Arabia

With over 23,000 students currently enrolled in U.S. institutions of higher education, Saudi Arabia is, and will continue to be, an important recruitment market. The future promise of this market is largely due to the extension of the King Abdullah Scholarship Program to 2020. U.S. institutions that offer Intensive English Programs and skillfully engage with government agencies have the greatest potential to recruit from this rich pool of fully sponsored students.

With one of the world’s largest oil reserves, Saudi Arabia is an incredibly wealthy country. Nonetheless, in 1990 only 10% of university-age Saudis, or 139,000 students, were enrolled in tertiary education. Within a decade, and after massive investment, Saudi Arabia has seen a five-fold increase in tertiary enrollments. In 2011 alone, the Kingdom appropriated US$40 billion to education and training from a total national budget of $154 billion.

A major pillar of the Kingdom’s investment in education is the King Abdullah Scholarship Program, which since 2005 has contributed dramatically to the outflow of Saudi students to overseas institutions of higher education. Between 2000 and 2010, the international mobility of Saudi students increased threefold, and in recent years nearly 90% of overseas students have been funded by scholarships.  The U.S. continues to be the most popular destination, hosting roughly 40% of Saudi students abroad.   According to the Institute of International Education (IIE), there were almost 23,000 Saudi students at U.S HEIs in 2010/11.  More recent data from the Student and Visitor Exchange Program suggest that enrollments for 2012 may set new and significant records for Saudi students, with some 52,000 nonimmigrant students and exchange visitors in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) as of March 2012. This compares to 36,500 students in March 2011.

It should be noted that Saudi Arabia is primarily an undergraduate market (roughly half), and 40% of Saudi students are enrolled in business/management or engineering.

2. Brazil

Under the Brazilian government’s Scientific Mobility scholarship program (formerly known as Science Without Borders), an estimated 50,000 Brazilian students are expected to enroll in U.S. HEIs in short-term programs over the next four years.  Institutions that effectively differentiate themselves from competitors can capitalize on this market opportunity.

Brazil, with the world’s fifth largest population and sixth largest economy, is a rising global power. Its per capita gross domestic product (GDP) at purchasing power parity (PPP) has grown by 60% in the last decade and in 2011 stood at US$11,700. Although tertiary level access remains relatively low compared to other emerging markets (35% gross enrollment ratio), the number of post-secondary students has increased threefold over the last decade to nearly 6.6 million.

The U.S. is the most popular destination among internationally mobile Brazilian students with one in three studying at American institutions. In 2010/11, there were nearly 9,000 Brazilian students in U.S. HEIs. Of those, nearly half were enrolled at the undergraduate level, with one in four majoring in business/management and one in five studying in the soft sciences, humanities or arts disciplines.  Currently, only 22% of Brazilian students are majoring in fields related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), as compared to nearly 43% of Chinese and 73% of Indian students. A shift towards these disciplines is expected given the focus of the Scientific Mobility scholarship program.


Sources: World Bank Data [2] 2012; *UNESCO Institute for Statistics 2012 [3]; **IIE Open Doors Data 2011 [4]; ***Internet World Stats [5]. Note: UNESCO figures reported in this table are for the most recent year for which data are available; IIE data on academic level in this table exclude percentage of students engaged in Optional Practical Training (OPT).

3. Vietnam

The recruitment potential among Vietnamese students can be attributed to the country’s growing middle class and strong study abroad interests. This market is particularly relevant to American community colleges, which rank Vietnamese students as their third largest body of international students. Universities and community colleges that identify and reach Vietnamese students with the financial means to study in the U.S. should enjoy a good deal of recruiting success in the coming years.

Vietnam is a new Asian tiger and has one of fastest growing economies in the world. Currently, 45% of the population is under the age of 25, which means a young, growing population will continue to demand increased access to tertiary studies. Vietnam’s GDP has tripled within the last decade, outpacing other rapidly developing countries and the global average. Although it is the least affluent among the top four emerging markets identified in this report, Vietnam witnessed the strongest growth in economic prosperity during the first decade of the new century. Between 2000 and 2010, per capita GDP (PPP) increased 126%, as compared to 26% in Saudi Arabia and 60% in Brazil.

Over the same timeframe, Vietnam experienced a ten-fold expansion in tertiary level enrollment. Today, over two million Vietnamese students are enrolled in tertiary studies. This will continue to increase as a result of the growing youth population and economic expansion. According to the Vietnam Ministry of Education and Training, the number of Vietnamese students overseas has surged in recent years, totaling more than 100,000 in 2011. One of the most popular destinations for Vietnamese students is the United States, which hosted 14,888 students in 2010/11, a six-fold increase from 2000/01.  More recent SEVIS data reveal that there were over 18,500 nonimmigrant students and exchange visitors in March 2012.

In the 2010/11 academic year, about three in four Vietnamese students in the U.S. were enrolled at the undergraduate level. Nearly 60% of the total were studying at a community college—almost 10% of total international enrollments at community colleges and just 0.2 percentage points less than the Chinese student body.

Business/management is the most popular field, attracting 40% of Vietnamese students; another 20% are enrolled in engineering or math/computer science programs.

4. Turkey

Opportunities to recruit from Turkey are primarily from its graduate market and dual degree programs. Recognized as a tough market to develop but one with a lot of potential, U.S. HEIs can overcome barriers by understanding the preferences and academic needs of Turkish student segments.

Turkey’s booming economy showed a GDP annual growth rate of 9.2% in 2010 and 8.5% in 2011. Its per capita GDP (PPP) is higher than Vietnam’s and Brazil’s, but considerably less than Saudi Arabia’s. Turkey’s youth population (ages 15-29) is large, making up 30% of the total population, which is the highest in Europe.  Although the upper secondary gross enrollment ratio (GER) shows no difference as compared to Vietnam (Turkey: 64%; Vietnam: 65%), Turkey currently offers greater access to tertiary level education than Vietnam with a GER of 46% (2.9 million students in 2009).

The U.S. is the most popular destination for outbound Turkish students, with roughly one in four enrolled here. Since 2000/01, Turkey has been among the top 10 places of origin for international students in the U.S., with 12,000 now studying at American institutions. Approximately 40% of Turkish students are enrolled in engineering or business/management programs, and another 13% are in the social science fields. A large proportion are pursuing graduate degrees.

A Portfolio Approach to International Recruitment

Informed by our experts’ insights, we recommend that the best way for universities to navigate the challenges and opportunities of recruiting from these top emerging markets is to adopt a portfolio approach. By recruiting from a broader range of countries, institutions mitigate the risks involved with an over-reliance on select markets and enhance prospects for enrollment growth. This framework consists of two tactics that efficiently utilize institutional resources and achieve recruitment goals. Universities and colleges should build 1.) a portfolio of countries, and 2.) a portfolio of practices.

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Institutions should recruit in emerging markets and, thus, build a portfolio of countries and a more diverse international student body. The up-and-coming markets that HEIs should target as their near-term recruitment efforts are Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Vietnam and Turkey. This diversification strategy will ameliorate the risks associated with over-dependence on a few large markets.

However, emerging markets present both opportunities and challenges. Thus, adopting a portfolio of practices can help U.S. institutions reduce the risks involved and maximize their opportunities when cultivating emerging markets. For example, to tap into sources of funding, institutions should leverage their institutional competitive advantage and develop relationships with organizations that fund and/or administer overseas scholarships (e.g. The Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission). American institutions of higher education should also draw on their pre-existing ties with institutions in emerging markets to reach their goals. Other than engagement at the institutional level, current and former students can act as ambassadors to promote U.S. institutions. Using their voice, particularly through social media, institutions can amplify a positive sphere of influence on potential students and ultimately achieve their goals while diversifying their student population.

This report provides higher education professionals with insights to prioritize more effectively their efforts towards their goal of recruiting beyond more of the same and venture into new and emerging markets.