International education is on a promising path, requiring nimble strategies and a focus on global engagement's value for student experiences.

4 strategies to navigate international education

International education is on a promising path, requiring nimble strategies and a focus on global engagement's value for student experiences and institutional reputation

Key points:

The global education sector is experiencing a resurgence as international education offices are witnessing a rise in enthusiasm from international student applicants. We are at a pivotal moment, as institutions globally are actively expanding opportunities for these students, often exceeding pre-pandemic mobility rates.

This rally isn’t just about numbers; it reflects a strategic commitment to global engagement. As revealed by the recent 2023 State of Global Engagement survey, 80 percent of international education professionals say global engagement is a cornerstone of their institutions’ long-term strategy. Furthermore, 71 percent emphasize that these global engagement initiatives are crucial for enriching the overall student experience.

Four trends stand out and present unique challenges and opportunities, painting a dynamic picture of the state and direction of global education as we look ahead to 2024.

1. Growing participation of international students

The surge in global student interest is evident, with the study showing a remarkable 62 percent jump in international enrollment applications, eclipsing pre-pandemic figures. The Institute of International Education (IIE) reported about 1.08 million international students in U.S. academic institutions during the 2019–2020 period. This revival in international enrollments post-pandemic highlights the renewed appeal of global education and emphasizes the critical role of integrating international students into the educational framework.

2. Intensifying global competition for international students

The race to attract international students is becoming increasingly challenging. The survey reveals that 41 percent of institutions face heightened competition from other countries, primarily due to the higher cost of studying in the U.S. In response, 60 percent are partnering with recruitment agencies, and 49 percent are ramping up their recruitment strategies. Despite these efforts, budget limitations remain a major hurdle for 35 percent of respondents.

Gone are the days when international education leaders simply had to highlight why their U.S. campus was the best choice. The current landscape demands that they first persuade international students that the United States is their ideal study destination. Only then can they promote the unique advantages of their institution. Factors like the strong U.S. dollar, increasing competition, concerns about visa acquisition, and apprehension about being welcomed in the U.S. are barriers that hinder international students.

3. The imperative role of technology

With the growth in applications and nuanced SEVIS requirements, the need for efficient processing is more pronounced than ever. Technology plays a crucial role here, enabling institutions to handle more applications and ensure compliance while allowing more time for advising. Embracing digital support for international student processes is essential for enhancing operational efficiency and improving student experiences.

4. The intrinsic value of international education

International education transcends academics, bringing a wealth of cultural and intellectual enrichment to campuses, local communities, and workplaces. It’s a conduit for cultural exchange and broadening global perspectives. International students are pivotal in driving new discoveries and innovations in the United States through their academic contributions and participation in Optional Practical Training (OPT) programs. A 2019 study by the Niskanen Center demonstrates a clear link: regions with higher OPT engagement see a rise in innovation, evidenced by an uptick in patents and increased earnings among those with college degrees. Remarkably, nearly a quarter of the United States’ 87 billion-dollar startups were initiated by founders who originally arrived as international students.

Challenges and opportunities

Despite positive trends, challenges like staffing, budgets, and scholarships impede progress. However, these hurdles also present opportunities. For instance, offering more financial support could spike interest and help more students commit to programs. To navigate these trends effectively, institutions can adopt multifaceted strategies:

Enhance outreach, marketing and promote success stories: International alumni are invaluable ambassadors for your institution. They can effectively share their positive experiences with prospective students and parents in their home countries, serving as authentic voices and influencers. Beyond advocacy, they can be instrumental in generating scholarships and facilitating various developmental initiatives.

Leverage social media: The #YouAreWelcomeHere campaign, supported by over 400 institutions and groups, demonstrates the diversity, friendliness, safety, and student-focused nature of U.S. educational establishments. Through a mix of compelling statements, engaging photos, captivating videos, and interactive events, this campaign resonates strongly on social media. In 2019, the initiative expanded its reach by introducing scholarships under the same hashtag, enabling high-achieving international students to realize their dreams of studying in the United States.

Partnerships and collaborative efforts: To broaden reach and enhance competitiveness, it’s essential to engage in strategic collaborations with recruiting agencies. Forging partnerships with the private sector is imperative. Professional schools can significantly benefit from allying with local businesses to champion impactful changes. Schools specializing in science and engineering should form alliances with technology firms, while health sciences schools can greatly benefit from partnerships with the medical sector, addressing the pressing need for well-trained professionals.

International education is on a promising path, requiring nimble strategies and a focus on global engagement’s value for student experiences and institutional reputation. U.S. institutions can remain leaders in this field by adapting to trends, addressing competition, and leveraging technology.

Efforts to broaden opportunities are showing results, with student travel reaching or exceeding pre-pandemic levels. Many institutions have already matched pre-pandemic participation in international programs, some have already exceeded them. By continuing to prioritize global engagement and tackling emerging challenges, U.S. higher education can lead in shaping a globally connected academic future.

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