Recruitment Beyond China: Lower-Middle-Income Countries Show Promise

As U.S. educational institutions, colleges, and universities scour the globe for sources of qualified international students, India ranks high on many strategic recruitment plans. But a close review of data points to other lower-middle-income countries’ potential as well – particularly for U.S. institutions beyond the top tier. With the right combination of insight, messages, and services, such institutions can be highly competitive when it comes to attracting prospective students from rising economies.

A Rising Force in International Enrollments

U.S. HEI enrollments among students from several lower-middle-income countries showed impressive growth in 2014/15. For instance:

  • Indian enrollments reached 132,888 – a 29.4 percent year over year growth in enrollments that far outstrips China’s 10.8 percent rate of increase.
  • Vietnamese enrollments reached 18,722 – 12.9 percent growth over the previous year, and the 14th year of consecutive growth.
  • Nigerian enrollments reached 9,494 – 19.9 percent growth over the previous year.[i]
  • Indonesian enrollments reached 8,188, up 3.4 percent over the prior year, and the highest tally in 11 years.

In fact, the year-over-year growth in enrollments from all lower-middle-income countries significantly outpaced growth from any other country-income group in 2014/2015. Upper-middle-income countries, by contrast, made their poorest showing since 2008.



Recruitment strategies that focus on lower-middle-income countries, many of which are home to an upwardly mobile, aspiring middle class, are particularly important for institutions that are outside the top-tier. Research by WES shows that outbound students from these countries, especially those at key inflection points in their academic careers, tend to prioritize career opportunities over reputation when choosing where to study.

Previous Projections: What’s Changed

A year and a half ago, the picture was different. At that time, several upper-middle-income countries – including China, Brazil, and Saudi Arabia – were the leading sending countries in terms of global international enrollments. But financial crises, political crises, and plummeting oil prices have curtailed study abroad plans among many students from these countries. The result has been two consecutive periods of declining growth from these former sector leaders. For instance:

  • An economic collapse in Brazil, spurred in part by the nation’s heavy dependence on soft demand from China, led to steep cuts on nonessential government programs. Among these were the government-funded Scientific Mobility Program, which, from 2011-2015, paid for some 28,000 Brazilian students to study in the U.S. As of May 2016, the government had provided grants to only 34 students to study in the U.S., down from more than 5,000 the year before. Current political turmoil has amplified the country’s economic instability, with no end in sight. The turmoil has stalled Brazilian student exchange at Michigan universities, where university administrators “stopped receiving applications either toward the end of 2015 or at the beginning of this year.” Administrators were told that no new cohorts would be arriving for the fall. Other institutions have experience similar declines.
  • Saudi Arabia and other OPEC countries, reeling from historically low oil prices, have seen numbers of outbound students to the U.S. beginning to drop, in some cases precipitously. Saudi numbers have been especially hard hit by tighter eligibility requirements for the King Abdullah Scholarship Program. In 2014/15, almost all of the Saudi students in the U.S. were supported by the scholarship program. So far in 2015/16, Saudi enrollments in the U.S. registered their lowest growth since 2005, when the scholarship program was first launched and the price of oil was above $100 USD per barrel.
  • 2015 marked China’s slowest economic growth in 25 years. Growth of Chinese student enrollments in U.S. institutions was similarly slow, dropping to levels not seen since 2007. Experts predict that the economic downward trend will continue to at least until 2020.

New Students; New Motivations

Given that lower-middle-income countries have begun to emerge as viable sources of qualified students institutions need to understand student motivations and to design their recruitment strategies accordingly.  In 2015, WES sought to better understand how international students choose institutions by surveying 3,472 individuals who had used our credential evaluation services. Our survey uncovered some key characteristics that distinguish students from lower-middle-income countries from their peers in wealthier nations:

  • They do not view college rankings as a primary deciding factor in deciding where to apply. Students from lower-middle-income countries prioritize good returns on their educational investment (ROI) and future career prospects over rankings. By contrast, students from upper-middle-income economies rank school reputation as critically important to deciding which U.S. institutions to apply to (25 percent vs. 43 percent). This represents an opportunity for institutions that cannot claim top placement on the ranking lists most often used by international applicants.
  • They view career prospects after graduation as a higher priority than any other country income group. This was especially true when they were compared to their counterparts from non-OECD, high-income economies (54 percent vs 33 percent).
  • They are price sensitive, but weigh long-term earning potential (the ROI of their investment in education) heavily. Almost half (48 percent) view cost, including annual tuition and fees, as the most important factor in choosing which U.S. institution to apply to.; however, even more – 53 percent – rank post-graduation earning potential as critical to their decisions about where to apply. By contrast, only 38 percent of students from non-OECD, high-income economies paid significant attention to post-graduation earning potential.
  • They place a high value on career services.  Fifty-five percent indicated the quality of career services as the most important factor in applying to U.S. institutions.

Reaching – and Enrolling – Students From Lower-Middle-Income Countries

WES research likewise found that students from lower-middle-income countries tend to apply to a higher number of institutions than their counterparts from wealthier nations. Our research showed that 41 percent of them reported applying to between four and six institutions. This lack of commitment increases competition for enrollments, but it also creates opportunities for institutions that are able to differentiate themselves. Doing so demands that institutions:

  • Emphasize the return on investment that graduates can expect from attending your institution. This entails communicating clearly about costs, and providing insights into the salaries that alumni (especially recent) earn after graduation.
  • Tailor recruitment messages to highlight career advantages that are unique to your institution. This entails supplying candidates with detailed information about how a degree from your institution creates employment opportunities in specific fields or with specific companies. If you are strong in dairy sciences and in helping graduates to obtain employment with local companies, for instance, highlight your track record. Provide data to support your claims.
  • Provide insight into your institution’s career services, and into any specific supports for international students. Relevant considerations include resume writing, interview coaching, and access to established networks of employers willing to hire international students. (See sidebar for additional details about WES research into career services and their role in international student success and recruitment.) To the extent that your institution’s career services department doesn’t explicitly support international students, advocate for implementation of better practices.

The Takeaway

Slow economic growth and declining flows of international students from upper-middle-income countries are expected to continue for the foreseeable future. Institutions that hope to thrive in this environment need to identify new pools of qualified international candidates. Lower-middle-income countries show promise for institutions that are able to distinguish themselves with the right combination of strategic planning, communications, and services.

[i] Growth in Nigerian enrollments has been on a general upward trend since 2013, however low oil prices have created questions about whether or not that trend will continue in the future. (See WENR Volume 29, Issue 3, “How will lower oil prices affect international enrollments from OPEC countries?”)










Posted in Asia Pacific, Enrollment & Recruiting, Mobility Trends, Strategic Internationalization