A Wider Net

Ranjan Daniels explores what college and university administrators can do to shield their institutions from a potential reduction in Chinese student enrollment.

August 6, 2019

In 2017-18, China sent 363,000 students to the United States to study -- the most from any single country, and more than the next six countries combined. This pipeline is so valuable that many higher education institutions in the United States have focused their international recruitment efforts and fiscal margin of safety almost exclusively on the Chinese market.

So when Chinese education official Xu Yongji warned Chinese students to critically assess the risks of study in the United States given recent political uncertainty, I pictured alarmed admissions leaders across American campuses pondering what their enrollment will look like if the inflow of Chinese students slows to a trickle.

What can administrators do to shield their institutions from a potential reduction in Chinese students? The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign made headlines last fall after administrators paid $424,000 for a futures contract to hedge against a drop in the number of Chinese students. Jeff Brown, dean of the Gies College of Business at the university, said, “These triggers [for the contract] could be things like a visa restriction, a pandemic, a trade war -- something like that that was outside of our control.” Having a safety measure in place at the institution was vital for Brown: “Tuition revenue from Chinese students makes up about a fifth of the business college’s revenue.”

The international enrollment threat reminds me of a scene in Moneyball: a grizzled baseball scout laments how the Oakland A’s can’t replace star player Jason Giambi, who signed a mega contract with the Yankees in free agency. Brad Pitt, who plays A’s general manager Billy Beane, agrees with the scout that no single player can replace Giambi. However, Pitt implores the room full of scouts to find a combination of players who can.

Channeling my inner Brad Pitt, I strongly recommend that colleges and universities diversify international recruitment, embracing a multicountry strategy to attract a broad pool of excellent students and hedge against potential losses from China. Over the past three years, for example, we’ve increased the number of countries represented at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy from 23 to 51 and the number of incoming international students from 116 to 274.

Beyond risk management, broadening the international pool of students can enrich the classroom experience for all students and faculty members as well as globalize the university alumni community. So: If fewer Chinese students apply, where to turn?

First, I would encourage college and university leaders to cast a wider net in Asia. A number of countries have growing 18- to 30-year-old populations looking to study overseas. At the top of your recruitment list should be India. With an expanding middle class of English-speaking students and not enough seats at top Indian higher education institutions to support the demand, it provides the second-largest pool of potential international students to the United States.

As an example, we at Harris have had 10 Indian nationals as alumni over the past 30 years. However, as a result of our team traveling to Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore and building relationships with universities and employers, we anticipate enrolling close to 30 students from India this year alone. Granted, one trip or effort to land students probably won’t produce that sort of yield, but if campuses make a concerted effort to build relationships and engagement in India, the potential is certainly there.

One outreach tactic I’ve found to be effective is having remote team members in India to help support recruitment efforts there and in the region. Remote team members can also help sustain and cultivate relationships in between visits from campus representatives from the United States.

In addition to India, Pakistan and Indonesia also have growing under-30 populations of potential students. I received a wonderful response when I visited Jakarta, and although the Indonesian market will take some time to mature, we expect to enroll eight students from Indonesia this year. And although some administrators may not consider visiting Pakistan due to safety concerns, there are ways to harness alumni, social media, webinars, video conferencing and emails to reach potential students.

Japan and South Korea are also viable markets that may have been overlooked as American colleges and universities chased China. The talent in Japan and South Korea is strong, and students are looking for opportunities to connect with admission officers in the United States. In fact, many students there hail from colleges and universities that mirror the structure of American undergraduate programs, which eases their transition to master’s degree programs in the United States.

An interesting lesson I learned about attracting international students occurred when I visited Seoul, where I noted a number of students from other countries studying there. I asked a university administrator what the key to their international recruitment success has been. The official smiled and said, “K-pop music has brought a lot of students to Korean universities from around the world.”

The clear takeaway for U.S. admissions leaders? Buckle down and invent the next pop culture phenomenon.

In all seriousness, it is truly vital to project a welcoming environment to students and to tap into popular cultural trends. Students are looking for more than degrees and information about academics: they want to learn about ways they can engage with the community and culture. So don’t be squeamish about embracing cultural trends and using them to connect with students, as long as you’re also promoting the academic quality of your institution.

Traveling to Asia may not be affordable or viable for representatives of many colleges and universities. If you are looking for a less costly way to diversify international recruitment, I recommend paying more attention to Mexico and South America. Those countries have talented students who could be very successful in the United States. You can begin your outreach with digital marketing as well as webinars, Skype conversations and alumni on the ground to make connections. Additionally, traveling to Mexico or South America is easier and could be more viable for your faculty members.

Also, if your current graduate students come from these countries, tap them as ambassadors to make connections with their undergraduate institutions and employers. American colleges and universities may have to offer more scholarships to win over students and to hedge against currency rates. Over time, successful alumni will encourage or lead to more incoming students who are less reliant on such financial aid.

Diversifying international student recruitment is no longer an option or a luxury -- it has to be front and center in recruitment planning. And for all these opportunities, developing in-person relationships is crucial: you can’t wait for these students to find your website or program. You must actively reach out and engage with them, letting them know there is a welcoming place for them on your campus.


Ranjan Daniels is senior associate dean of student recruitment and global outreach for the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy.


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