Navigating a New Paradigm for International Student Recruitment

The 2016 election of U.S. President Donald Trump changed the global recruitment landscape for higher education institutions (HEIs), nowhere more than in the nation that elected him.

In the nearly two years since, multiple studies have documented declines in international student enrollments at U.S. institutions. At the same time, media and entities that track developments in higher education have reported increased enrollments in other countries, especially those where costs are lower, quality and access are on the rise, and the social and political environments are more welcoming.

An infographic showing seven recommendations for institutions to retool and strengthen their approach to international recruitment and admissions [1]

What’s Happening on Campuses Now?

To better understand how these shifts are affecting enrollments, applications, and international recruiting at U.S. institutions, the WES research team surveyed more than 270 higher education professionals in January and February 2018. Our goals were to gain evidence-based insights into changes in enrollment patterns as they play out in real time, and to develop a set of practical recommendations to help institutions across the U.S. weather an ongoing storm.

What we learned from the survey confirmed, in part, what others have reported: Enrollments and applications are down on the majority of campuses, and many respondents expect to see the declines continue. Most respondents (71 percent) told us that the political environment is a cause of their international recruitment challenges. Many noted other factors at play, including rising tuition costs, increased competition from institutions around the globe, and more.

Some Bright Spots

For all the unhappy news, we were also surprised and heartened by some of our findings. More than a quarter (28 percent) of respondents, for instance, reported a year-over-year increase in international applications between 2016–17 and 2017–18. Notably, more respondents (39 percent) reported being optimistic about international enrollments in 2018–19 than reported being pessimistic (37 percent).

Our research helped us understand what many institutions are doing to soften the impact of declines in international student enrollments and to plan for the future of international admissions and recruitment. Broadly speaking, U.S. HEIs are seeking to adapt their enrollment management strategies, as well as provide a welcoming environment for international students. They are also continuing to focus on positive messaging, both in what is directed at potential enrollees and applicants, and in their long-term planning.

New Recruitment Tactics

The vast majority of respondents also reported that they have altered, or plan to alter, their recruitment strategies. They noted a particular focus on social media (78 percent) and on domestic travel for “backyard” recruitment (72 percent)—the domestic recruiting of international students living in the U.S.

One respondent advised, “Be honest, but also help [applicants] put political perceptions into perspective. A student who begins as a new freshman next fall will graduate after the current president’s term ends. [Next year], there will also be midterm elections…, so there’s potential for the landscape to change significantly.”

Another noted: “Just be clear that the current political climate is nothow the university feels. Meet with potential applicants and reassure them of a welcoming climate on campus. Respond quickly and warmly to inquiries.”


With international students providing $39 billion in revenue [2] to U.S. HEIs, schools are seeking to revamp their international recruitment strategy to attract students and mitigate losses, despite the current political climate. Our research findings suggest several recommendations to help institutions retool and strengthen their approach to international recruitment and admissions. We recommend the following seven steps:

  1. Diversify recruitment targets.

International enrollments from any one country are prone to large fluctuations, and the last year has seen a softening of enrollment numbers among Chinese and Indian students. These drops are significant given that China and India have been reliable top senders by substantial margins for several years. Diversifying the international enrollment funnel is probably always wise; at this juncture it is imperative.

  1. Emphasize a welcoming environment.

The national #YouAreWelcomeHere campaign [3] is one way that multiple institutions have banded together to demonstrate solidarity and show support for international students. Eighty-six percent of survey respondents found the campaign effective in helping to reassure international students that the political climate on campus remains distinct from the nation’s as reflected in the media.

  1. Provide support and resources.

Pre-arrival support [4] can help international students navigate the visa process, help parents manage safety concerns, and highlight support services in the surrounding community as well as those on campus that are available to international students. Also critical is ensuring that international students have easy access to up-to-date information about immigration and visa policies.

  1. Engage in virtual and social media outreach.

Our research suggests that HEIs are forgoing more traditional recruitment methods such as overseas travel in favor of newer and less expensive approaches such as social media. Virtual and social media outreach can be used to develop relationships with students, to inform them of developments in immigration and visa policy that may affect their student status, and more.

  1. Engage the alumni network for recruitment.

Alumni can be instrumental in attracting prospective international students. For their upcoming application cycle, 66 percent of our respondents said they planned to engage more with recent international alumni.

  1. Address students’ financial concerns.

Nearly half of our respondents (45 percent) cited the rising cost of tuition as a challenge to recruiting international students. Although providing scholarships or lowering tuition may not always be possible, institutions can provide advice to help international students understand, manage, and mitigate some of the financial costs of their education.

  1. Develop and maintain partnerships that can either provide alternative routes to recruitment or facilitate entry.

Community colleges can create a cost-effective pipeline [5] of international students who, after graduating, seek a four-year degree. Secondary schools, which educate more than 80,000 international students [6], can provide a venue for backyard recruiting. Relationships with staff at foreign embassies, ministries, and government education agencies can help ensure a high institutional profile among potential recruits. And to ensure more ready access to help with I-20 forms and other visa issues, it can be useful to cultivate relationships with staff at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP).