The Next Frontier: ROI Evaluation in International Student Recruitment

WENR-0216-Feature-box [1]In the coming decade, institutions of higher education across the U.S. will face two realities now reshaping the enrollment landscape. On the one hand, global demand for international higher education is projected to nearly triple to 8 million students by 2025 [2]. On the other hand, a drop in domestic enrollment [3] has already made international student recruitment a financial priority.

In this environment, international student recruitment is becoming an increasingly important part of an institution’s strategic plan. As universities compete for a finite number of qualified students, understanding which international recruitment efforts work and which don’t—as well as what each effort costs and how many enrollments each yields—will likely become ever more important. In other words, going forward, higher education institutions (HEIs) must understand the return on investment (ROI) of their global recruitment efforts.

Where are we now?

In June 2015, researchers at World Education Services (WES) set out to study the ROI of international recruitment practices at U.S. HEIs. Exploratory in nature, this study sought to provide an overview of current ROI processes in international recruitment. The starting point for our research was to understand the current practices. We framed the following questions to guide our research:

  1. How are international student recruitment budgets allocated?
  2. What are the best practices for assessing the effectiveness/ROI of specific international student recruitment activities?
  3. What are the benefits and importance of ROI measurements in international student recruitment?

What we discovered was that ROI evaluation processes in international recruitment are in the early stages. Overall, the way many HEIs currently measure ROI is unscientific. Most HEIs lack solid tools, mechanisms and metrics to determine recruitment effectiveness. However, we also saw some HEIs that have managed to come up with strategies to evaluate their outcomes and to develop these evaluation practices into clearly defined processes.

Significantly, we also found that, although there is substantial interest in assessing and addressing the ROI of international recruitment in terms of number of enrolled students, there has been little emphasis on other tangible and intangible benefits.

Based on our findings, we identified some key challenges that prevent many HEIs from effectively measuring the ROI of their international recruitment efforts. We also devised a series of recommendations about how the field might move toward more comprehensive and effective ROI measures. Both challenges and recommendations are summarized at the end of this article.


To address our three key questions, we employed a mixed-methods research design. We collected data from several primary and secondary sources, and cross-validated the findings in three phases:

The following article summarizes what we learned.

How are international student recruitment budgets allocated?

Based on our interviews with professionals in the international education field, we found that many institutions have an overall budget allocated for a range of international student recruitment activities. According to our survey findings, the most popular recruitment initiatives are in-person recruitment trips, education fairs, and social media marketing. Our interviews revealed that traditional recruitment techniques such as overseas recruitment trips and education fairs are used more often than activities such as digital or social media marketing.

WENR-0216-Feature1 [6]

Although traditional recruitment techniques are used more extensively in international student recruitment, they have inherent disadvantages in terms of difficulty in collecting and tracking student data for ROI evaluation. Digital marketing platforms, by contrast, often come with built-in analytics. (Channel-specific measurement practices for assessing the effectiveness/ROI of specific international student recruitment activities are discussed later in the paper.)

While recent polls indicate [7] nearly every institution of higher education uses some form of social media, it remains unclear how effective the use of such tools are in terms of enrollment or creating awareness:

Common budgeting practices

Survey responses indicate that the majority (61%) of institutions measure the total cost of their recruitment efforts and allocate budget based on what they spent in the year prior. Some institutions allocate budgets based on the previous year’s overall tuition revenue from both domestic and international students. Depending on an institution’s organizational structure, budgets are sometimes allocated by departments; alternately they may be divided up by undergraduate and graduate levels. Sometimes they are allocated by both department and level.

WENR-0216-Feature2 [10]

Many higher education institutions use the yield number of students enrolled as the ultimate marker of the overall effectiveness of their international recruitment practices. However, given the number and variety of touchpoints involved in the student recruitment process, more nuanced ways of calculating ROI are needed.

What are best practices for assessing the ROI of international student recruitment activities?

As noted above, our research revealed that most institutions measure ROI based on a simple quantitative metric: the number of students who matriculate. However, some institutions have begun to tease out more effective ways of measuring the ROI of international student recruitment initiatives.

WENR-0216-Feature3 [11]

The right measures: Hard and soft metrics

An effective ROI measurement of international recruitment efforts is based on two categories:

Currently in international student enrollment, institutions place little emphasis on soft returns, focusing much more heavily on the hard returns of international recruitment efforts.

Looking beyond cost per student: Understanding the funnel

Success in the new recruitment landscape depends on analysis of the entire enrollment funnel and a number of varied inputs.

The full ROI for international recruitment activities – from enquiry to application to final enrollment – can be realized over a period of one to three years. Some investments are made very early in a prospective student’s admission life-cycle; some far later. To calculate the benefits of all these recruitment efforts, institutions must capture and analyze multiple inputs – the number of prospects, the number of people viewing a website, the number of applications, the impact of overseas recruitment trips, digital contacts, and more — at multiple points along the student journey.

Measuring the ROI of traditional recruitment activities

Traditional recruitment activities such as overseas recruitment trips can be calculated based on the cost-per-lead, cost-per-applicant, and cost-per-enrollee for each school or country visited, with time periods ranging from one to three years. Measurement should take place (and be reviewed) on a month-to-month or year-to-year basis for comparison. Some institutions have tracking processes and tools in place for this purpose. There are likewise mechanisms for tracking other traditional recruitment tools such as commission-based agents, advertising or purchasing leads. By designating each activity with a specific source code that then goes into a database, institutions are able to quantify returns.

WENR-0216-Feature4 [12]

The increasing use of customer relationship management (CRM) [13] tools in international enrollment management shows the promise of this approach. Our survey found that more than half of responding institutions are using a CRM or information management systems to engage potential students and keep track of communications.

WENR-0216-Feature5 [14]

These statements point to the benefits of CRM and other emerging tools in collecting, analyzing, tracking, and evaluating the performance of recruitment efforts.

Another useful marketing concept, often used in the advertising industry is the AIDA (awareness, interest, desire, action) model [15], which covers a customer’s decision making journey. The AIDA concept is well suited to helping HEI’s measure returns at different stages of the enrollment funnel by defining metrics for all touchpoints in the prospective student journey.

Ongoing struggles

In an international recruitment context, many activities are related. Parsing out which activity is the most effective, or determining whether activities are effective only in conjunction with one another is an ongoing challenge. Many institutions have yet to achieve the integration offered by CRMs and/or make full use of other technologies that can help to surface and report on information logged in backend databases.

WENR-0216-Feature6 [16]

For many institutions, tracking each step of a student’s complete enrollment journey and tagging each phase with a recruitment activity still remains either aspirational or achievable only with great effort. While most institutions are only able to track applicants through their online application systems, some institutions are trying to go above and beyond by using manual techniques (such as using feedback forms, surveys, and interviews of applicants and enrollees) to get more information about the success of their marketing activities.

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Measuring the ROI of digital or social media marketing

Interview respondents unanimously said that social media is a great source for generating leads and an effective tool for brand building.

WENR-0216-Feature9 [19]

They also noted the difficulty of quantifying its benefits in any meaningful way. Digital or social media marketing, with its built-in analytics platforms, is, on one level, easy to measure. Most institutions consider the key performance indicators (KPIs) of their digital marketing based on brand engagement, brand awareness, and word-of-mouth publicity. Currently, KPI’s from digital and social media marketing are measured [20] on the basis of simple interactions such as page views, followers, and the number of clicks, shares, and “likes” through platforms such as Google Analytics. However, these measurements are often only loosely tied to other metrics around recruitment.

Adding “calls to action” (CTAs) to social media messages and campaigns, and then measuring the social conversion rate3 [21] is another technique that allows both measurement of results and, in some cases, better integration with more traditional recruitment activities. In order to more meaningfully assess the returns of social media marketing, other measures such as the number of comments and replies per social media post can be captured. Traditionally, brand awareness, brand engagement and word-of-mouth publicity has been measured using surveys and interviews; however social media can act as proxy measures to quantify these softer measures. Using a broader range of metrics [22] for each social media application (blogs, social networks, videos etc.) can help institutions to more successfully quantify the soft returns of their social media campaigns.

What is the importance of measuring ROI in international student recruitment/what are the benefits of doing so?

Subjective judgement can lead to inefficient allocation of resources in answering key questions about where to invest limited dollars for the greatest returns. Administrators must annually make decisions around questions such as:

A nuanced approach to ROI can provide more informed and effective answers to all these questions, helping institutions to allocate limited resources intelligently, both in terms of the actual dollars spent and the nature of the rewards reaped. Consider: An advertisement for a specific event could lead a student to attend the event, engage in social media, or to inquire further about the institution, yet it is not always clear which of these activities is associated with the student’s decision to apply or whether they can be isolated. Well-designed ROI measurements can help untangle the chain of events leading from a given expenditure to an event.

Our research showed that most HEIs understand the value of ROI analysis – even when they lack the capability to do it effectively. According to our interviews, institutions view ROI as an important indicator, helping them to assess not only the value of monetary outlays, but also of the intangible resources such as time, effort and man-hours that go into each recruitment activity.

WENR-0216-Feature10 [23]


Based on our interviews with institutions we were able to identify some of the challenges that currently impeded effective measurement of the ROI for international student recruitment activities:


Despite the challenges, some HEIs have managed to come up with strategies to consistently evaluate their outcomes and to develop these evaluation practices into more defined processes. Based on their experiences and insights, we have developed a few key recommendations to consider when devising a more effective institutional ROI evaluation process.

1. [25] Survey respondents: Higher education professionals that specifically recruit international students, have international student recruitment budgets and carry out at least some form of international student recruitment marketing activities.

2. [26] Interview respondents:

3. [27] Benson, Vladlena. Cutting-Edge Technologies and Social Media Use in Higher Education. (383-384). IGI Global