How Master’s Students Choose Institutions: Research on International Student Segmentation



During the 2013/14 academic year, there were 181,371 international students pursuing master’s degrees [4] in the U.S. This represents an increase of over 9% from the previous year. Despite the growing importance of international master’s students in the U.S., there is little research on how they decide which university to enroll at and what institutional attributes and characteristics inform these decisions. Building on our first report, Not All International Students Are the Same: Understanding Segments, Mapping Behavior [5] (2012), this fourth report seeks to fill that research gap by focusing on the decision-making process of international students at the master’s level. Consistent with previous years’ reports, we define student segments as follows:

Four Segments of International Students [6]

To address the question of what institutional attributes and characteristics different segments of international master’s students’ value in their decision-making process, WES surveyed 2,388 students applying to WES for credential evaluation (See Methodology in the full report [2]). The report examines the relative importance that students place on the following institutional attributes: school reputation, career prospects, location, and cost. To delve deeper into what aspects of these attributes different student segments value, respondents were prompted to evaluate the importance of the following sub-criteria:

WES_How Mastes Students Choose Institutions [7]

The report also maps student segments with the following institutional characteristics: Funding source (public versus private), setting (city, suburb, town and rural), size[1] [8] (large, medium and small), and basic Carnegie Classification. The survey further prompted students to categorize the institutions to which they applied the following way:

These selections were then linked to institutional characteristics using data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and the Carnegie Foundation.

The report finishes by exploring the differences in student decision-making processes as defined by segmentation and their country or region of origin, specifically: China, India, the Middle East, Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Europe. As over half of international graduate students in the U.S. are from China or India (54%) [10], the report provides in-depth findings for these crucial markets but explores key differences by region as well.

Master’s Students from China and India

Consistent with previous findings [11], the research found that Chinese students have stronger financial resources compared to their Indian peers. Notable characteristics include:

The survey revealed that over 70% of Chinese students are able to pay in excess of $30,000 per year for their studies and 58% can afford over $40,000 while nearly seventy percent of Indian students have a budget of less than $30,000 per year.

What do Chinese and Indian master’s students value in a university?

Forty-seven percent of Chinese students selected school reputation as the most important factor in their decision-making process. The ranking of the school/program is the most important attribute of school reputation, with 39% selecting it as “very important,” especially for Highfliers, with 49% selecting it as “very important.” Additionally, 53% of Chinese students selected reputation of the school with potential employers as a very important sub-criterion of career prospects.

Career prospects are the most important (58%) characteristic of a school for Indian students, more than the sum of school reputation (24%), cost (14%), and location (5%). Approximately 60% of Strivers rated the three sub-criteria of career prospects (reputation with prospective employers, earning potential and career services) as “very important.” In addition to career prospects, shorter programs seem to offer a good value for Indian students. Twenty-seven percent of Indian students rated program duration as “very important.”

Where do Chinese and Indian master’s students study?

Although location was selected by just 9% of Chinese respondents as the most important decision making factor in choosing an institution, their needs and values reflect important preferences in terms of where they study compared to Indian students.

The percentages of private universities Chinese students chose as Reach Schools, Match Schools and Safety Schools are 76%, 67%, and 62%, respectively. For Indian students, approximately 70% of their school preferences (Reach Schools, Match Schools, and Safety Schools) are public. India is the only country or region examined with more students choosing public institutions as Reach Schools.

Twenty-eight percent of Indian students applying to Reach Schools and 42% applying to Match Schools apply to Master’s Colleges and Universities, more than any other country or region, whereas the majority of Chinese students applied to Doctorate-granting Universities.[4] [13] Only 3% applied to Master’s Colleges and Universities as Reach Schools and 8% did so as Match Schools.

Being close to or in a major city is “very important” for 36% of Chinese students, however, less than 20% of Strivers or Strugglers indicate so, highlighting differences by segment. Overall, more than 95% of schools Chinese students applied to are in a city or suburb, with more than 80% in a city setting. For Indian students, 17% of Match Schools and Safety Schools they applied to are located in a town or rural setting, indicating Indian students are willing to compromise on location.

How Masters Students Choose Higher Education Institutions [14]Master’s Student from the Middle East, Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa and Europe

This section details new findings on traditional markets (the Middle East and Europe) as well as insightful data from emerging markets (Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa). (See Section 4.3 to 4.6 in the full report [2]).

International Student Segments By Country and Region [15]What do master’s students value in a university?

Consistent with previous findings for Explorers, location is chosen as the most important characteristic by 24% of students from the Middle East and 32% of Explorers. No other country or region selected this option more than 10% of the time. In terms of location, 17% of student from this region consider “being close to friends or family that lives in the U.S.” as “very important.”

Latin American students are the most likely to take recommendations from peers into serious consideration as nearly one third (30%) rated this sub-criterion of school reputation as “very important.”

Nearly one third of Sub-Saharan African students selected cost as the most important attribute of an institution and they are the most likely to think every aspect of cost is “very important.”

Forty percent of European students select career prospects as the most important factor in applying to an institution, the most important component of which is the quality of career preparation services, which 51% consider “very important.”

Where do master’s students from these regions study?

One quarter of the Match Schools that Middle Eastern students apply to are in suburbs, the highest of any country or region.

Although just 22% of Latin American students chose “being in or close to a major city” as “very important,” over three quarters of Reach Schools, Match Schools, and Safety Schools that Latin American students apply to are in cities, indicating a strong preference for metropolitan areas.

Approximately 30% of the institutions that Sub-Saharan African students identified as Match Schools are Master’s Colleges and Universities.

Fifteen percent of the Reach Schools and 10% of the Match Schools European student apply to are small institutions, higher than other countries or regions. Notably, European respondents apply to very few institutions (67% applied to 1-3), indicating a strong preference for particular universities.


Building on our research findings, we recommend that institutions do the following in order to improve their international recruitment efforts:

The research illustrates that there are a wide range of student motivations, needs, and preferences within and among sending countries and regions. These differences have direct implications in terms of which institutions students choose to apply to and enroll in. Institutions need to be aware of how these differences manifest themselves and to align their outreach strategies with the appropriate target market.

There are over 4,000 HEIs in the U.S., and each is unique in its own way. Although there is little that institutions can do to increase their ranking, improve their location, or alter other immutable characteristics, they should determine what makes them an attractive place to study. Institutions should use these advantages to attract best-fit international students. Whether this means leveraging scholarships more effectively or highlighting a desirable location, students have different needs, and institutions must align their value propositions to meet them.

It is imperative that institutions develop an understanding of their target market and of their own strengths and weaknesses. However, doing so in an ad hoc manner and simply hoping for the best results is unlikely to help institutions meet their international enrollment targets. Institutions need to move from hunches to informed strategies in order to achieve the best results.

The report demonstrates not only the breadth of student profiles, but also the diverse attributes and characteristics that attract students to particular institutions. In a climate where only a few institutions enroll the lion’s share of international students, the challenge for HEIs is to build awareness and attract and retain the best-fit international master’s students to their campuses. We hope that this research will help advance this goal by providing institutions of various types with the information they need to build and implement informed strategies.

WENR divider
[1] [17] According to Carnegie Foundation, size of the institutions is based on their full-time equivalent (FTE) enrollment and not on the basis of total enrollment: http://bit.ly/1KudRrL [18]

[2] [19] Definitions of Reach, Match and Safety Schools are derived from Princeton Review: http://bit.ly/1e4L5zm [20]

[3] [21] Master Colleges and Universities include: Master’s Colleges and Universities (larger programs), Master’s Colleges and Universities (medium programs) and Master’s Colleges and Universities (smaller programs).

[4] [22] Doctorate-granting Universities include: Research Universities (very high research activity), Research Universities (high research activity) and Doctoral/Research Universities.
WENR divider
WES Research & Advisory Services [23] helps institutions maximize the impact of international enrollment efforts with future-ready strategies that align with campus needs and priorities.

See more at wes.org/RAS [24]