International Recruitment for Master’s Programs: Trends, Issues, and Insights to Reshape Your International Enrollment Strategy


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According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), nearly two out of five (38%) first-time graduates in OECD countries [4] obtained a tertiary 5A credential (typically bachelor’s degrees and some master’s degrees) in 2012, 10 percent more than in 2000 (28%). Still, the global labor market estimates a potential shortage of 38 million college-educated workers by 2020 [5]. These trends in educational attainment and market demand have given rise to opportunities for higher education institutions (HEIs) to expand their international graduate recruitment efforts.

As the largest host country of international students worldwide, the U.S. has benefited from the rising interest in advanced degree programs. However, the complex, constantly changing and increasingly competitive international education landscape makes it challenging for international recruitment professionals to make informed and effective decisions. This article explores the trends, issues and insights that may influence institutional enrollment strategies when recruiting master’s degree-seeking students from abroad.

The first section of the article reflects on the factors and trends that underlie the growth in demand for master’s degree programs around the world, particularly in the context of U.S. institutions. Section 2 provides recruitment recommendations based on responses to a recent WES survey [6] of over 3,500 prospective international master’s students, with specific insights into their academic and financial profile and information-seeking behaviors. (Full report and survey analyses are free to download here [6].)

International Student Mobility at the Master’s Level

A confluence of push and pull factors weigh on students’ decision-making processes when looking to study abroad. A staggering one-third of Indian college graduates under the age of 29 are unemployed, as reported by the BBC [7]. Likewise, in China, approximately 2 million of 7 million graduates in 2014 were reportedly struggling to find a job. The competition for jobs in many rapidly developing countries is becoming increasingly fierce, and the perceived quality of an overseas education continues to be seen as a leg up in the job market among many students and families dissatisfied with the education systems in their home countries [8]. Against this backdrop, millions of aspiring young adults are studying abroad in a bid to improve career and life opportunities.

In academic year 2013/14, one in five international students [9] studied at the master’s level in the United States (181,371 total), representing a 26 percent increase from 2008/09. By comparison, enrollments at the doctoral level have grown by only 6 percent over the same time period. In 2012, some 12 percent of the 757,387 master’s degrees [10] awarded in the U.S. were conferred to international students; the proportion is significantly higher in engineering fields where more than two out of five (41%) master’s degrees were earned by international students. These figures are significantly higher than the overall ratio of international students, which, according to data from IIE, sits at just four percent of the total U [11].S. higher education student body [11].

India and China are the key contributors to the growth of international master’s students in the U.S. Existing national data for master’s level students do not break down enrollments by country of origin, so a recent study from the Brookings Institute [12] examining four years of data (2008 to 2012) from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency offers invaluable insight into the key markets for the recruitment of international master’s students.[1] [13]

The study found that while India is the second largest country of origin of international students (at any level) in the U.S., it sent far more master’s students than any other country. Nearly four out of five (79%) F-1 (student) visa holders from India studied at the master’s level from 2008 to 2012, 11 percent more than from China (132,075 vs. 119,353). Looking ahead, India’s Highfliers [14] – students who are academically prepared and have sufficient financial means to pay for their studies in the U.S. – are likely to drive new growth in U.S. international enrollments.

More than two out of five (42%) Chinese F-1 visa holders in the U.S. were enrolled at the master’s level between 2008 and 2012. However, the most recent data [15] from the Council of Graduate Schools is cause for concern. The 2014 data show a one percent overall decline in new enrollments of Chinese graduate students, the first such decline in five years. Nonetheless, there are still bright spots in master’s level enrollment data from China, with surging interest in U.S. business schools. Citing Crain’s New York Business, China Daily reports that 13 of the top 25 MBA programs in the New York area [16] saw enrollment growth largely as a result of rising interest from Chinese students.

Also on the enrollment bandwagon are students from countries offering generous government support. One such example is the Fund for Development of Human Resources [17] and the National Council on Science and Technology (CONACYT) [18] scholarship programs offered to Mexican students. Between 2008 and 2012, the number of Mexican student visa holders at the master’s level was more than four times the total number at the doctoral level (5,890 vs. 1,460). Likewise, between 2008 and 2012 the number of student visa holders at the master’s level from Brazil (4,750) was almost four times the number of doctoral students (1,203). According to data from the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) [19], first-time graduate enrollments, master’s and doctoral students, from Brazil surged 91 percent from 2012/13 to 2013/14. This trend is likely to continue after the announcement that from Fall 2014, the Brazil Scientific Mobility Program will be extended to include graduate students in STEM fields [20].

STEM fields[2] [21] accounted for nearly one-half (48%) of first-time international graduate enrollments [22] in the U.S., and have been driving overall growth [23] in recent years. It’s noteworthy to mention that nearly four out of five [24] (79%) students from India are enrolled in STEM fields. At the same time, the market demand for education and healthcare workers with at least a master’s degree [25] is also projected to show rapid growth in the U.S. For example, the numbers of physician assistants and nurse practitioners are projected to rise by 30 percent or more [26] between 2012 and 2022. Schools that offer these programs are likely to see international enrollment growth, driven by labor-market demand.

Multiple sources point in the same direction: the growth is likely to continue, although the scale of the growth will be less than at the undergraduate level [27]. According to test-taking data from the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE), the standardized test that is required for entry into a majority of graduate schools in the U.S., there was a 21 percent increase in non-U.S. test takers [28] between testing year 2012-13 and 2013-14. India recorded a staggering 59 percent increase during that period, representing nearly nine-tenths (88%) of the non-U.S. growth.

Meanwhile, the number of non-U.S. residents sitting for the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), taken by prospective business school students, rose 18 percent from testing year 2010 to 132,651 in 2014 [29], as compared to a 27 percent plunge of test takers residing in the U.S. over the same time period.

Understand the Characteristics and Information-Seeking Behaviors of International Master’s Students

This section discusses the findings of a recent WES survey of nearly 3,600 Millennials (those born between 1978 and 1997) who identified themselves as master’s degree-seeking international students planning to study at a U.S. HEI at the time of the survey, which was conducted between September 2013 and March 2014. We then applied a segmentation framework to provide the following recommendations and findings that may influence and reshape your institutional recruitment strategies (Read the full report [30]):

Four Segments of International Students [31]


1. Master’s recruitment ≠ doctoral recruitment

Not surprisingly, the decision-making processes of students seeking to study at the doctoral level differs from those at the master’s level. There are also differences with regards to student segments. At the doctoral level there is a significantly higher proportion of Strivers (54%) than at the master’s level (32%). Nearly one-half (49%) of master’s students have high financial resources as compared to just 17 percent of doctoral students, a finding that reinforces the notion that recruitment strategies between the master’s level and doctoral level should differ significantly because they are two idiosyncratic groups.

2. Adapt to master’s students’ digital proclivity

On the broad spectrum of international enrollment strategies, the rise of technology and social media [32] has opened up a new gateway for institutions looking to explore cost-effective recruitment approaches. The most commonly used information-seeking channel among master’s students is the institutional website (91%), followed by web search (72%). While website optimization is important, a proactive online and social media outreach strategy is also greatly encouraged. Our study found that master’s students (27%) were more likely than bachelor’s students (14%) and doctoral students (17%) to use online discussion forums to research information on studying in the U.S. Institutions that want to adapt to the evolving communication patterns of students without losing full control over outreach and admission processes are advised to explore cost-effective social media [33] strategies to communicate with prospective international students.

For Highfliers, adopting mobile technology recruitment strategies is likely to improve engagement with them. A majority (59%) of Highfliers searched for information about U.S. institutions via a smartphone and about one-third (31%) used a tablet. When asked what they used mobile devices for, Highfliers reported higher usage than other segments across almost all activities during the information-search and application process, from searching information on an institutional program (95%), communicating with admissions staff (65%), connecting with current students and alumni on social media (51%) to even submitting a college application (37%). These findings suggest the need to develop mobile-ready recruitment strategies [34] to reach out to Highfliers.

3. Create a cohesive university network to promote your campus

Without strategic enrollment planning international recruitment often defaults to international admissions departments alone, forgoing the benefits that other campus stakeholders can bring to the table. Our survey findings reveal that a university network comprised of faculty, admissions officers, current students and alumni have the biggest influence on the application decisions of master’s students. Of all master’s students, more than two out of five (44%) chose one of the university network stakeholders as the most influential group in their application decision-making process, followed by family (32%). Institutions should create roles for stakeholders to facilitate the process of international outreach and make them a cohesive network for maximizing the return on outreach efforts.

In particular, network marketing is highly relevant to Strivers, the largest segment (32%) of master’s students. Compared to other segments, we found Strivers reporting higher usage of most of the available information channels, especially online channels. Strivers are also more likely than overall master’s students (30% vs. 24%) to report having befriended more than 500 people on social networking sites (e.g. Facebook). These findings suggest that Strivers are self-directed and maximize their network for retrieving information. Institutions that are able to expand the university network will likely see more engagement with Strivers.

4. Map content creation to student needs

Two in five (40%) Explorers chose location as one of the top three information needs they sought when applying to U.S. institutions, as compared to 28 percent of overall master’s students. Explorers are also more likely than other segments to state that the prospect of living in a foreign country is one of the top two reasons leading them to seek opportunities to study in the United States. Institutions should consider building a student ambassador program [35] to help prospective students gain credible information from peers. Institutions targeting Explorers can encourage current students to blog about their student life [36] and highlight the locational advantages on the institution’s website.

In contrast to Explorers, Strivers are much more interested in program-related information than the experiential aspect of studying abroad. We found Strivers are more likely than overall master’s students to select “financial aid and scholarship opportunities” (34% vs. 22%) and “faculty research and expertise” (33% vs. 28%) as one of their top three information needs. An easy-to-find webpage or microsite to showcase faculty’s involvement worldwide [37] or financial aid and scholarship opportunities available to international students [38] is likely to appeal to the information needs of Strivers.

5. Consider student motivations to study in the U.S. and provide support to help them achieve their goals

The majority (80%) of master’s students selected “I want to expand my career and life opportunities” as one of the top two reasons that led them to seek opportunities to study in the U.S. However, stringent work visa policies have imposed formidable challenges on the ability of international students to find a job in the U.S. after graduation. According to an annual survey by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) [39], nearly two out of three American students graduating from business schools received a job offer prior to graduation; however, this number reduced to only 41 percent for international students. We suggest institutions provide more guidance on expanding students’ professional networks and in developing workplace skills. For example, publishing a list of previous employers that recruited alumni [40] or helping current students connect with alumni [41] on professional networks.


The landscape for recruiting international master’s students remains positive, but caution is still advised in interpreting somewhat disparate market trends. Master’s programs in the U.S. are faring better than doctoral programs in attracting international students, and STEM fields will continue to drive enrollment growth alongside other fields such as healthcare and business which are both likely to gain more traction in the coming years. However, recruiting from the two largest source countries, India and China, should be focused on where the bulk of the interest lies: business in China, engineering in India.

Furthermore, when it comes to recruitment practices, the profuse use of technology in every aspect of the Millennial generation’s lives has dramatically changed the way they retrieve information, communicate and connect with each other. This introduces a new raft of opportunities and challenges to the field of international student recruitment.

In the constantly changing environment of international recruitment, many institutions have simply reacted to the growing demand from a limited number of markets [42] without strategically assessing the fit of the students recruited and the risks that over-reliance on a limited number of countries might bring in the long term. Therefore, we recommend that institutions adopt evidence-driven strategies [43] to interpret enrollment and information-seeking trends, and align those with the institutional strengths, resources, and capacity. This requires that institutions fully understand the differing profiles of international master’s students, differentiate recruitment strategies accordingly, and choose the best channels to reach out to those targeted segments. This should be done in collaboration with key stakeholders to ensure institution-wide engagement with prospective students. Finally, recruitment and enrollment managers should make sure they are evaluating the effectiveness of recruitment practices on a regular basis.

WENR divider

WES Research & Advisory Services [44] offers research-based consulting solutions on student mobility, international enrollment, and transnational education.

See more at wes.org/RAS [45]

WENR divider [46]

[1] [47] The numbers of F-1(student) visa holders cited in this section are estimates based on a calculation multiplying total F-1 visa holders by the proportion of F-1 visa holders in a given academic level. Hence, these estimates may deviate from actual numbers.

[2] [48] We grouped biological and agricultural sciences, engineering, mathematics and computer sciences, and physical and earth sciences engineering into STEM fields.