Bridging the Digital Divide: Segmenting and Recruiting International Millennial Students

More than nine out of 10 Instagram users [1] are under the age of 35; nearly 85% of Facebook users in India [2] are between the ages of 16 and 34. Millennials worldwidethose born approximately between 1980 and 2000have introduced a raft of new challenges and also opportunities to the field of international student recruitment. With regards to technology usage, Millennials differ from previous generations by:

To help higher education institutions (HEIs) understand and adapt to international Millennials’ information needs and behaviors, WES surveyed 4,852 U.S.-bound prospective international students between the ages of 17 and 36 years. The survey was conducted from October 2013 to March 2014. The respondents are international degree-seeking applicants to bachelor’s, masters’ and doctoral degree programs, hereafter, referred to simply as bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral students.

Building on our first report [5], we delve further into the information-search journey of international students by exploring their use of technology and the psychographic characteristics that fundamentally influence their information-seeking behaviors. We also examine closely students from China and India at both the bachelor’s and master’s levels (See Section 3 for detailed discussion in the full report [6]).

Based on the segmentation of two dimensions: financial resources and academic preparedness (See Methodology in the full report [6]), we identified four segments of international studentsExplorers, Highfliers, Strivers, and Strugglersas follows:

A chart showing international student segmentation into explorers, highfliers, strugglers, and strivers. [7]

Four International Student Segments

Explorers: Students with high financial resources and low academic preparedness

Highfliers: Students with high financial resources and high academic preparedness

Strivers: Students with low financial resources and high academic preparedness

Strugglers: Students with low financial resources and low academic preparedness

A chart showing international millennial student segments by academic level and country of origin. [8]

Digital Life

A study from Pew Research Center [3] highlights that Millennials are twice as likely as Gen X to cite the use of technology as an attribute that distinguishes them from other generations. With this in mind, the findings of our survey are relevant for institutions that want to utilize technologies in their outreach efforts to more effectively target particular student segments or to differentiate their marketing outreach by degree level (See Section 2.1 in the full report [6]).

Information Search Journey

Living in the world of technology has fundamentally changed the way Millennials search for schools. We find that differences in the use of information channels manifest in interesting ways across academic levels and student segments (See Section 2.2 in the full report [6]).

Not only do students differ by level and segment in terms of how they prefer to retrieve and receive information, but they also differ by the types of information they seek. Using the best information channels to reach out to international students is important, but it must be accompanied by quality, tailored content (See Section 2.3 in the full report [6]).

Influencers of Application Decision

Our research indicates that a university network comprised of faculty, admissions officers, current students and alumni has the biggest influence on students during the application process, followed by students’ families.

In this context, the ability to leverage prospective students’ network becomes very important; institutions need not only to convey their value proposition to students, but also those relations who could potentially influence a student’s application decisions (See Section 2.4 in the full report [6]).

Psychographics Characteristics: Motivation, Value of Education and Success

Overall, the most cited reason for wanting to pursue higher education in the U.S. is the desire to expand career and life opportunities. Seventy-nine percent of respondents selected this as one of their top two reasons. As found in previous years, Highfliers and Strivers are more motivated to study in the U.S. because of the country’s reputation for high quality education and the prospect of expanding career opportunities. Conversely, Explorers are more motivated by the experiential aspects while Strugglers are more motivated by the possibility of financial aid and the opportunities to have new life experiences (See Section 2.5 in the full report [6]).

Finally, our survey highlights the attitude of international Millennials towards education, success, and other factors. This is pertinent information for institutions wishing to understand the fundamental values underlying student behavior, and wanting to reflect the relevant themes into their value proposition strategy (See Section 2.6 in the full report [6]).


To achieve effective and informed international enrollment strategies, we recommend that HEIs adopt evidence-based practices to better understand the constantly changing needs and behaviors of international Millennial students. One such change is the use of digital technologies among international Millennial students in their study-abroad decision-making processes. With this in mind, we recommend that HEIs:

In a climate of decreasing budgets and increasing pressure to recruit students from abroad, reassessing your recruitment strategies and adapting them to the needs of your target audience is the best way to ensure a good return on investment for your recruitment efforts.