Driving Enrollment Growth in the US


This article originally appeared in UNBOUND.

The competitive higher education landscape has evolved over the years, and that American institutions face more volatility and uncertainty.  

New enrollment of international undergraduate and graduate students at American universities and colleges for 2017-18 declined by 6%, according to the recent Open Doors data released by the Institute of International Education. This means that 14,230 fewer students resulted in a potential revenue loss of $355 million, at average tuition and fees of $25,000, for the first year of studies alone—without factoring any tuition discounts/waivers. 

This staggering loss comes at a time when the near-term outlook indicates continued challenges to international enrollment growth. The majority (92%) of 540 responding institutions in a Fall 2018 International Student Enrollment Survey accompanying the Open Doors report noted that “the current U.S. social and political climate impacted their campus either positively or negatively over the past year.” 

To recover from the slowdown in the Third Wave of international student mobility, institutions must become more innovative and proactive in attracting international students to drive enrollment growth. We asked university leaders to share their best practices. 

Strategies for international enrollment growth 

The Fall 2018 International Student Enrollment Survey by IIE indicated that the top reasons colleges and universities cite for growth continue to be active recruitment efforts (58.1%), growing reputation and visibility of their institution (47.5%), and active outreach to admitted students (46.9%). Most of the professional, continuing, and online education units have a strong innovation and growth mindset to recognize the importance of investing in outreach. However, the unique contexts of international student enrollment present new challenges and opportunities to achieve the desired outcomes.  

Here are six strategies that can support international enrollment growth in the US: 

1. Promote the destination 

Until recently, American higher education institutions did not need to persuade international students of the attractiveness of the U.S. as a destination. However, in the current political climate, students are bombarded with information that often raises concerns ranging from safety to immigration policies. 

Jeet Joshee, Associate Vice President, International Education and Global Engagement and Dean, College of Professional and International Education at California State University, Long Beach, notes that universities must become proactive in educating students about education in the U.S. and about their own institution. Joshee highlights that his focus is on aligning expectations of families and students with the realities in the U.S. and on campus. He asserts that universities cannot assume anymore that students and their families have the correct information about the quality of the American higher education system.  

2. Articulate program differentiation 

International students currently have ample choices when it comes to attending a U.S. university or college, especially because of new models of learning, including online and lower-cost offerings in alternative destinations. And every student is looking for the right fit, which means that universities must identify and articulate what makes them unique to their target segment of students.  

This is one of the strategies University of Washington, Continuum College is focusing on to differentiate itself. Sandra Janusch, Assistant Vice Provost, International & Academic Programs at University of Washington Continuum College says, “we are extensively reviewing our unique value proposition in a highly competitive market where international students are expecting more in terms of experiential learning opportunities.” She adds that the university’s expertise in the context of Seattle’s location “offers unique experiences for our students, and we intend to more actively leverage location advantage in our programs.” For example, UW’s nine-month certificate program in global business is designed for business professionals and international students to learn and apply skills in the Seattle area, as it allows for one-year of Optional Practical Training (OPT). 

3. Enhance program relevance 

Overcoming external volatility is also about ensuring program relevance. Kelly J. Otter, Dean, School of Continuing Studies at Georgetown University, says that her school prioritizes their audience and labor market needs, matching them with the competencies that will be delivered by the Georgetown program. The school uses market research, benchmarking studies, labor market trends, and job description reviews to drill down to the competencies in demand to ascertain curriculum relevancy. This allows Georgetown to have a stronger alignment of their programs with the local and global labor markets, she adds. 

At the same time, gathering global market intelligence is not so easy, so having boots on the ground elsewhere has proven a successful tactic. Georgetown’s presence in Qatar provided a deeper understanding of the region. For example, the International Executive Master’s in Emergency & Disaster Management program was specifically conceived as a global offering with international students as a core segment. Launched in Fall 2017, the program was designed based on deep insights and participation from the Middle East, and focuses on resources and systems that require global contexts. The one-year program blends online learning with five on-site residencies in Oman, Jordan, France, Qatar, and Washington, D.C.  

4. Optimize online programs 

While student journeys, decision-making processes, and expectations have evolved, institutional channels for recruiting and offering academic programs have lagged. Nelson Baker, Dean, Professional Education at Georgia Institute of Technology, asserts that “through online Master’s degrees, we are optimizing the iron triangle of cost, accessibility, and excellence of our programs to reach qualified students worldwide.”  Since its launch, Georgia Tech’s Online Master of Science in Computer Science (OMSCS) has experienced exponential growth, reaching an enrollment of 8,656 students (Spring 2019). Thirty-two percent of that total are international students from 104 countries. 

Through that program, “Georgia Tech has expanded global engagement and provided a platform for students to earn a high-quality, low-cost degree,” adds Baker.  “The program offers flexibility and also gives students across the globe the opportunity to collaborate with and learn about diverse cultures and people.” The OMSCS program costs about $6,600 over five terms—about a sixth of the cost of an on-campus degree. Following the success and approach of OMSCS, Georgia Tech launched two new low-cost programs—Online Master of Science in Analytics (OMS Analytics) and Online Master of Science in Cybersecurity (OMS Cybersecurity). Each program costs less than $10,000, which is three times below the average US fee. 

5. Accelerate digital outreach 

With the launch of new programs and the adoption of new online and blended delivery models, the choices available to international students will continue to increase. This means that institutions must put more proactive efforts in increasing brand awareness for their programs. Among the institutions which reported growth in international enrollment in Fall 2018 in the IIE survey, the top reasons cited were 1) continue to be active with recruitment efforts (58.1%); 2) grow reputation and visibility of their institution (47.5%); and 3) active outreach to admitted students (46.9%). 

Consider the case of Harvard Extension School, which offers a wide portfolio of 900 online and on-campus courses. The Extension School has the halo effect of the Harvard University, yet it does not take global outreach for granted. Huntington Lambert, Dean, Harvard Division of Continuing Education, says that the greatest minds and human potentials are distributed evenly around the world and for many international learners the only chance they will ever have to learn at Harvard is online. Harvard’s efforts for strategic digital outreach in international markets is part of its mission to reach learners in many ways. 

6. Partner with Stakeholders 

In times of enrollment challenges, universities must also find innovative ways to expand their resource and expertise base. A good partner can facilitate the change management process to achieve common goals, says University of Washington Continuum College’s Janusch. “We are becoming more active in partnering with a range of stakeholders, including vendors, employers, professional organizations, and universities, to boost expertise and become more strategic,” she explains. “We often look outside academia for ideas and solutions that can help us adapt to and address our new landscape.” 

Likewise, Georgia Tech partnered with Udacity for the first MOOC-based degree, the OMSCS program. It also partnered with edX for two additional degrees – OMS Analytics and OMS Cybersecurity. As Georgia Tech’s Baker explains, “we collaborate with partners who have a common mission and yet bring complementary strengths. Our relationships for online programs expand the reach and impact of our mission to meet the needs of the global workforce through affordable, flexible, and accessible education.” 


Driving international enrollment growth in the Third Wave of intense competition and unfavorable political climate calls for a higher education’s institution to develop innovation and proactive strategies that can address this wave’s unique challenges and contexts. A set of institutional strategies that promote university destination, articulate program differentiation, enhance program relevance, optimize online channels, and partner with stakeholders can create pathways to recover from the current slow-down in international enrollment. The success of many institutions will depend on how quickly and effectively they innovate and adapt to the new environment of the Third Wave. 

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