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It seems lately the outlook for higher education is bleak, especially from a U.S. context—there’s the looming “enrollment cliff,” growing questions regarding the value of the “traditional” four-year degree program and employers increasingly committing to “tear the paper ceiling” and commit to skills-based hiring strategies.

However, I’ve often found we can be a bit myopic in our thinking, and it’s helpful to get a sense of higher education from a broader global context, which is why I was excited when my friend and former Dartmouth colleague Kaitlin Dumont offered to introduce me to her Kaplan colleague Clare Rawlins. While I’ve often chatted with Kaitlin about Kaplan’s position from a North American context, I don’t quite have my head around Kaplan’s global business.

Clare has a unique perspective on the international higher education ecosystem, overseeing student recruitment and marketing at Kaplan International Pathways, which supports international students in making the leap (figuratively and geographically speaking) to studying at institutions of higher education abroad. Curious to learn more through her global lens, I spoke with Clare recently, and she graciously agreed to answer my questions.

Q: You’re based in the U.K. and have worked in international education globally. You must have quite an interesting perspective, both historically and in the current context for higher education. Can you share a bit about your professional journey, how your role has changed over the years and how this context has shaped your current thinking?

Clare Rawlins, a light-skinned woman with dark hair wearing a patterned top and bright lipstick.

A: Thank you, Josh, for taking the time to explore the international context of higher education and for your thoughtful question. Like many of my colleagues in the international student sector, my career path has been strongly influenced by a desire to travel and a fascination with other cultures. My first role was teaching English in Italy. Like so many other young people globally who begin their careers teaching abroad, I had the opportunity to be fully immersed in the culture and the language and, most importantly, was able to meet and form friendships with people living there.

However, it was really the students and their experience that first made it click for me that international education is where I was meant to be. After about three years, I broadened my experience to include marketing and then moved into the higher education sector, where I discovered my true passion. I started in student- and parent-facing roles, and even though I now work more with the university side, the student-first approach still flows through every aspect of the student counseling we do. Everything we do at Kaplan follows what’s best for our students.

While many of your readers might know Kaplan in a U.S. context for test preparation or professional licensure, many are unaware of Kaplan’s expansive global footprint with over 10,000 employees in 27 countries supporting more than a million students annually. At Kaplan, we believe in the power of education to shape the world for the better, and where I sit on our Kaplan International Pathways team, we do this by enabling students from all over the world to study internationally. Kaplan International Pathways is actually the largest international student recruiter for U.S.-based colleges and universities, supporting over 20,000 students from over 125 nationalities in partnership with more than 60 universities globally.

Q: While international students used to be a “nice to have” for many U.S.-based colleges and universities, with changing demographics, institutions are becoming increasingly focused on their international student recruitment strategy as a means for survival. From your perspective, what has struck you as the key differences between the approach to recruiting international students to U.S. institutions versus where you’re located in the U.K.? What can U.S. institutions learn from their global peers? And what are the key points of competitive differentiation that U.S. colleges and universities can promote when trying to attract international students?

A: You are absolutely correct, there is growing concern in the U.S. regarding demographic changes that will affect many sectors, but perhaps most perilously will create an enrollment cliff for colleges and universities when it comes to traditional-aged college students. Enhancing the student population through international student recruits is not only a way to increase the diversity of perspective, but also a pathway to institutional financial sustainability. This is something the U.K. has already been focused on for a number of decades, with greater investment in working to recruit international students. There is a longer tradition in the U.K. of universities building active and effective international offices, and the universities often have separate teams that are dedicated to domestic vs. international enrollment.

While the U.S. investment in this infrastructure may often be nascent, there are other points of competitive differentiation for U.S.-based colleges and universities. U.S. higher education arguably does a better job of integrating experiential learning through work-based opportunities for international students. While some may think these opportunities are not available to international students due to visa constraints, optional practical training (OPT) allows undergraduate and graduate students with F-1 status to work for one year to get practical training which complements their education, and STEM graduates can extend this to three years. U.S.-based colleges and universities also put a greater emphasis on embedding this part-time work in the curriculum and supporting wraparound services such as internship-preparation classes and opportunities to reflect after the experience to articulate the skills and competencies gained, all of which creates a seamless and relevant work-based learning approach that is very attractive to international students.

Also, U.S. universities do a great job of developing and marketing scholarships for international students.

Q: In China, the number of students going abroad for university study is decreasing, while in many other markets that number is steadily increasing. Has this prompted a re-evaluation of the recruiting pipeline?

A: Universities, in fact the entire higher education sector, became highly reliant on attracting Chinese students, and then when numbers fell, the sector suffered. COVID really made us re-examine the dependence that had developed on one source of international students, and I’d say we never again want to be in that situation.

The real goal of international student recruiting is not just a path towards financial stability for the institution, but also a meaningful way to create a diversity of thought in the student population that reflects the global community in which we all live. A broader spread of nationalities is not only much healthier for higher education institutions, but it makes the academic, cultural and social experience so much richer for the international students.

Another important goal to be considered is the diversity of subjects studied, because this enhances the student experience, career readiness and enrichment of research. In fact, U.S.-based colleges and universities have made notable efforts towards developing and marketing scholarships for international students with this end goal in mind.

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