Recruiting Best-Fit International Students to Graduate Business Programs


The most popular field of study for international students in the U.S. is Business and Management [3]. Although the number of international students studying for business degrees has been steadily increasing, the year-on-year rate of growth for the field has diminished slightly over the last three years (IIE Open Doors 2011-2014 [3]). At the same time, many business schools in the U.S. are facing declining interest from domestic students [4] due to high tuition fees and the improved state of the economy [5], which tends to be inversely related to business school enrollments. As a result, international students are becoming increasingly important for business schools’ bottom lines. With changing student profiles, higher education institutions (HEI’s) need to reevaluate their recruitment strategies and gain a deeper understanding of the types of international students they are recruiting in order to enroll more best-fit students into specific programs.

Recent data from the Council of Graduate Schools [6] reveal that although international student applications for graduate business programs in the U.S. increased by 7% in 2014, first-time international graduate enrollment grew by only 2%, down from 6% in 2013 and 15% in 2012, suggesting a widening gulf between applications and enrollments (see chart below). The continuing slowdown in first-time enrollment growth is potentially troubling for U.S. graduate business programs. Although international candidates are driving application growth, this has not led to an increase in yield as evidenced by falling enrollment numbers. Much of the fall-off in business program enrollments is due to a sharp decline in applications and enrollments from China [7].

Change in International Applications, Offers of Admission, and First-Time Enrollment in U.S. Graduate Business Programs [8]

According to WES’ segmentation methodology [9], 57% of international master’s students in business and management are either “Highfliers” (students with high financial resources and high academic preparedness) or “Explorers” (students with high financial resources and low academic preparedness) compared to 49% of overall master’s students across all fields, indicating greater financial resources.

These differences manifest themselves in the information needs of master’s-level business students*, who are more interested in information about career prospects after graduation (54%) and school reputation (51%) than graduate students in general. The data also reveal that across segments there are substantial differences in the relative importance of information needs such as “location” and “financial aid and scholarship opportunities.” Only 22% of business and management “Strivers” (students with low financial resources and high academic preparedness) who plan to pursue master’s degrees are interested in the institution’s location compared to 35% of Highfliers. Additionally, 30% of Strivers are strongly interested in information on financial aid and scholarship opportunities, which compares to 9% of Highfliers.

Our research also indicates that institutions need to ensure that their websites are compatible with mobile devices as approximately 90% of prospective master’s business students use either their smart phone and/or tablet to search for information on a university’s program.

Institutions need to be aware of the different segments of business and management students in order to tailor their recruitment efforts and to market their business programs based on international students’ profiles and needs. For example, schools located outside of large metropolitan areas could improve their recruitment efforts by reaching out to students who are less interested in an institution’s location, such as Strivers, by highlighting the savings inherent to living outside of large cities. As the pressure to recruit both domestically and internationally mounts, institutions should segment their recruitment lists and develop strategies that are better aligned with the evolving needs and preferences of international students.

* Note: Based on a survey of 1,068 international masters students in business and management fields of study out of the total sample of nearly 5,000 international students as reported in recent WES Research & Advisory Services report: Bridging the Digital Divide: Segmenting and Recruiting International Millennial Students.

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WES Research & Advisory Services [2] offers research-based consulting solutions on student mobility, international enrollment, and transnational education.

See more at wes.org/RAS [10]

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