Colleges' Growing International-Education Efforts Fuel a Quest for More Market Data

June 02, 2011

College international offices could soon be drowning in data.

Overseas market intelligence, particularly in the area of international-student recruitment, has become an increasingly high-stakes business. That was evident at the annual conference here of Nafsa: Association of International Educators, which wraps up here on Friday.

During the weeklong meeting, the British Council, a British-government-supported educational and cultural agency, rolled out its "education intelligence" service, which will provide detailed information and analysis of trends in global student mobility. Quacquarelli Symonds Limited, a higher-education-consulting company known as QS, announced its "Stars" system, a new institutional rating program for universities.

And conference goers packed a panel discussion on recruitment trends organized by International Graduate Insight Group, or i-graduate, a British company that surveys international students to find out where they want to study and why.

This hunger for sophisticated market analysis reflects the changing nature of universities, said Pat Killingley, director of higher education and education with the British Council. "They're big global businesses," she said, "and they need that sort of intelligence."

As colleges ramp up their international engagement, forming complex overseas partnerships and competing in a hothouse market for top foreign students, their strategies need to be grounded in data, said Ms. Killingley's colleague, Elizabeth Shepherd.

"An idea is no longer enough," Ms. Shepherd, a research manager with the British Council. "You need empirical evidence to back up what is often a large financial commitment."

Identifying Shortcomings

One of the veterans of international-education research is i-graduate, which has been conducting its student surveys since 2005. The company now polls more than 170,000 students at 700 colleges in 23 countries annually, said Will Archer, i-graduate's chief executive.

The survey results can help institutions assess and fine-tune their recruitment strategies, said Pamela Barrett, an American consultant who works with i-graduate. For example, the company found that Hong Kong students who attend its client institutions in the United States cite the importance of parental preferences in their college choices, Ms. Barrett said during a panel presentation. Thus, it could make sense for colleges to reach out to parents as well as students when recruiting there.

Likewise, it might not be as effective to seek students from Saudi Arabia through Web sites, as those students are less apt than others to find information that way, i-graduate's research suggests.

The University of Cincinnati was one of the first American institutions to sign on with i-graduate, and Ronald B. Cushing, the university's director of international services, said it has made a great deal of difference. "Data is a good thing," he said. "It tells you what you are doing well—and what you are not doing well."

Indeed, the company's surveys have revealed dissatisfaction among foreign students with some of Cincinnati's services. Many of those problems were easily fixed, Mr. Cushing said, for instance, by extending library and shuttle hours and opening a convenient worship space in the international center.

Survey findings also helped Mr. Cushing better understand that he had to have a more-refined recruitment strategy. Based on responses to student surveys, Cincinnati is pulling back from its use of paid recruitment agents in India because the data show they were not especially influential in students' decision making, Mr. Cushing said. Instead, the university is embarking on a targeted marketing campaign and is spending more time building relationships with high schools in that country.

The British Council, too, plans to market new reports forecasting trends in global student flows and to offer more-detailed analyses to help universities determine countries and institutions with which to strike effective overseas partnerships.

The reports will cost between $200 and $2,100 and will focus on country-specific trends. One report that was highlighted during a conference session delved into the different factors, such as the popularity of certain disciplines, that influence the choices of prospective students in China's largest metropolitan areas, as compared with those in the country's second-tier cities.

Prospects of Customized Research

The British Council has collected more than 126,000 student questionnaires through its 200 offices worldwide, at college fairs, and via online education companies that specialize in providing information about overseas study. It is considering whether to offer customized research to specific universities, Ms. Shepherd said.

The council's American counterpart, the Institute of International Education, does produce reports on mobility trends, including its annual "Open Doors" report, but is not engaged with market research for individual institutions.

John K. Hudzik, a past president of Nafsa, said that colleges must move beyond collecting information about "inputs," such as the number of students enrolling in American universities from particular countries, and do a better job in assessing the impact of a college degree.

"Definitely, it's important," Mr. Hudzik, a professor at Michigan State University, said, "but it depends on what data you're collecting and for what purpose."

It's not just a matter of accumulating statistics, agreed Rahul Choudaha, who is heading up a new research division at World Education Services, or WES, a nonprofit international-education-services organization. Colleges also have to use that information intelligently, he said.

Mr. Choudaha is beginning a project that will survey the 50,000 students who apply to WES each year for foreign-credentials evaluation on issues such as their use of paid recruiters. He plans to make the results of his research publicly available.

"In an age where even relationships are quantified in terms of numbers of Facebook friends and Twitter followers," Mr. Choudaha said, "institutions need to leverage the availability of student data for informed decision-making."