'Branding' Community Colleges Abroad

It wasn’t long ago at all that City College of San Francisco -- which, with 1,380 international students, ranks eighth among community colleges nationally for international enrollment -- didn’t do much in the way of active recruitment abroad.

July 26, 2007

It wasn’t long ago at all that City College of San Francisco -- which, with 1,380 international students, ranks eighth among community colleges nationally for international enrollment -- didn’t do much in the way of active recruitment abroad.

“Before the last two or three years, we did the ‘armchair-type’ recruiting, where we would put ads only in a limited number of publications,” says Joanne Low, dean for the School of International Education and English as a Second Language at City College. The college’s prime location ensured that its international student numbers kept rising regardless, as Asian students, in particular, chose a San Francisco institution so they could live with relatives or otherwise study in this golden city they’d heard so much about.

But today, City College recruiters can be spotted at a handful of international recruitment fairs per year -- although like at most community colleges, money for international endeavors must be found within the confines of flat or otherwise inflexible budgets. “We’ve found that there’s just more competition,” Low explains of the college’s shift in recruitment strategy. “There are more community colleges and colleges in general that are actively recruiting international students now.”

About 15 percent of all international students in the United States study at community colleges, and, despite a temporary drop-off after September 11, 2001, the total enrollment of international students at community colleges has increased by 17.8 percent from 1999 to a total of 83,160 in 2006, according to data from the Institute of International Education. With students from Asia comprising 52 percent of the international enrollment at community colleges – Japan, Korea, Mexico, China and Taiwan are the top five sending countries for two-year institutions – more community colleges have stepped up their efforts to “brand” themselves across Asia and explain their missions to students unfamiliar with the community college concept.

“Five years ago, [the American Association of Community Colleges] decided that it would help member colleges in their recruitment efforts,” says Judith Irwin, director of international programs and services for the association, which runs community college-specific recruitment fairs that travel to multiple countries (the fall trip, for which 30 colleges have signed up, includes stops in Indonesia, Vietnam, China and South Korea).

Irwin also meets with educational advisers abroad to promote and explain community colleges, with a particular focus on the 2+2 transfer option that enables community college students to move into four-year universities, including some of the nation's most prestigious. “This is not a widely known concept abroad,” Irwin says. “There are lots of community colleges; there are lots of two-year colleges. But these are usually vocational colleges that end in two years and the students can’t transfer into a university.”

In recruiting abroad, community colleges promote many of the same messages they stress domestically: affordability (although international students pay higher rates than in-state students, and in some cases, out-of-state residents as well, the average cost of tuition and fees, at $6,500, is still relatively low compared to four-year institutions in the United States); the transfer model; small class sizes and a teaching-oriented faculty; intensive English language learning programs; and a much lower admissions bar. High scores on the Test of English as a Foreign Language often aren’t necessary, as many colleges offer intensive language classes that students with weak English skills must take prior to enrolling in credit-bearing courses. Nor are there SAT requirements and such.

International students are “using community colleges just the way Americans are,” says Peggy Blumenthal, executive vice president for the Institute of International Education. “They’re shopping smart, and they’re realizing you don’t need to pay for four years of an expensive private education. You can start at a community college and transfer in.”

But so too do community colleges face their own particular challenges when it comes to recruitment. While about 800 of the country’s 1,200 community colleges are certified to host exchange students, it’s still very much a minority that are recruiting abroad -- largely, Irwin says, because of budgetary concerns and the priorities of campus leaders and boards, “whether the leadership feels that this is something their campus should be doing.” Although she notes the latter barrier comes up less often of late, as there’s a greater sense "that one of the community needs these days is learning about other cultures."

But that doesn’t mean there’s general community or legislative consensus in many locations that community colleges should have global missions, as evidenced in Arizona, where two campus presidents in the massive Maricopa Community College system were forced out in February after international travel expenses came under fire. Although the expenses were viewed as lavish in this case, the whole concept of taxpayers footing trips abroad for community college officials proved to be controversial. In an early report on the scandal, the Arizona Republic quoted State Rep. Laura Knaperek, chair of the House Universities, Community Colleges and Technology Committee, as saying, "The community is not the world community. Community is the city you live in ... work in, play in and pay taxes in."

Even for those colleges that do enjoy support from lawmakers and community members for their international efforts, other challenges in recruiting abroad abound: These include unfamiliarity with community college offerings abroad; some stigmatization on the part of students, families and, in some countries, consular officials; a lack of traditional campus conveniences at community colleges, including housing (only about 270 two-year colleges offer on-campus housing); low scores on the prestige scale; and minimal brand-name recognition.

But Irwin says that for those colleges that do actively recruit, that last obstacle can be overcome via persistence. “We’re still not household names. You have to keep going back,” Irwin says. “[For] the colleges that keep going back, the colleges that are really known out there, the students are always looking to them. They’ve heard of them. They keep flocking back.”

Santa Monica College, for instance, which, as a college of 29,312 with 2,658 international students, trails only Houston Community College in terms of international student enrollment, has, after years of effort, established a name brand in China, says Elena Garate, Santa Monica’s outgoing dean of international education (she’ll be returning to the classroom to teach English as a second language in the fall). “You have to keep your name out there. You have to appear that you’re everywhere even when you’re not there,” Garate says.

But while Garate stresses the importance of picking and choosing international recruitment fairs wisely in order to save money, using online forums intelligently and, very importantly, responding to every e-mail inquiry from prospective students abroad, she also stresses retention, “the other end of recruitment.” A student at Santa Monica, which does not offer housing, would have to be very independent to begin with, she says. But the importance of giving Santa Monica's students, however independent they may be, the necessary services -- including intensive English as a second language instruction, academic advising and assistance with finding housing -- is absolutely crucial to any international recruitment strategy, Garate says.

"Although schools enjoy income in non-resident tuition, they have to be able to spend money to retain those students," Garate says. Though a patient college willing to invest may eventually earn dividends: Tuition and fees from international students at Santa Monica brought the college $14 million last year, Garate says. The budget for international education programming and services was $2 million.

The support of campus leadership and a willingness to invest resources in recruitment and retention play a crucial role in defining any international effort, says Stephanie Scoby, director of international sales and marketing in the international programs office at Green River Community College, located in a residential town about an hour’s drive south of Seattle. Green River’s own international program dates back to the late 1980s, when the administration expanded its support for international student recruitment and support, says Scoby, who adds that, “As we expanded, we were able to invest more back from the tuition that we were earning from the students, invest back and help the campus improve its facilities, and also expand our efforts to help students from other countries come.”

Today, Green River's international programs office has about 20 full- and part-time administrative staff, including three staff who are on the road a third to half of the year; four full-time and two part-time advisers for international students and a housing director and two assistants who work solely with students from abroad (Green River also offers dormitory housing: Of its 340 spots, about half are occupied by students from the United States, and half from overseas, Scoby says). “That is something unique to our school,” says Scoby. “I think we feel pretty confident that there aren’t a lot of other institutions investing in that [level of] support for their students.”

When it comes to investing on the recruiting side alone, Blumenthal, of IIE, says that the cost of a recruiting trip can typically be recouped if just a couple students reached end up coming to the college. But what to do if even that initial recruiting expense is out of a community college’s budget, or if a college's constituents make clear that international travel is not an acceptable expense? Houston Community College, the second-largest community college system nationally and the leader in terms of international student enrollment, may offer one answer, at least for colleges located in cosmopolitan centers.

“Most of the recruitment that we do is actually in the city of Houston,” says Gigi Do, director of international initiatives. “Many of our students come here because they have relatives; their family already lives here.” (That’s an observation that Ken Bus, director of international education at Glendale Community College near Phoenix, also echoed -- “If you know somebody in a city, any city, in the United States, then there’s a community college there,” he says).

Working with the international community in Houston is the “key to recruitment” at Houston Community College, Do says -- and it’s cost effective, too.

“We do go overseas and we do advertise in the [American Association of Community Colleges] catalog, but in order to go to three, four countries, it costs about $10,000 to $12,000 for a person to go,” Do says. “We still do that, but we find it not as effective as using our own community to recruit.”


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