The Power of Partnerships in International Admissions

Mary Baxton Photo (1) The American higher-education system is decentralized, but American colleges that want to expand their enrollments of international students don’t have to go it alone. In a guest post, Mary Baxton, an international education consultant, and Eddie West, director of international initiatives at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, describe different groups that colleges can work with. Ms. Baxton and Mr. West, who used to work together at California State University at Northridge, are scheduled to present a talk on this topic at the annual meeting of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

Eddie WestInternational recruitment and admissions have been topics of much interest over the past 20 years. Efforts to develop, fine-tune, and implement international recruitment have led to multiple approaches, budget adjustments, and refinement of philosophy and technique. The days of having a tried-and-true marketing strategy and expecting students to simply arrive at the door of the institution are gone. Developing an international community and building it take time. Colleges cannot expect it to grow overnight. It takes teamwork and partnerships.

Each November the Institute of International Education releases its Open Doors report, detailing figures on international students in the United States and American students studying abroad. Last year’s report indicated that 819,644 international students were studying in the United States as of the fall of 2012. News articles accompanying the announcement noted a noteworthy fact: Once again this figure meant that the United States plays host to more international students than does any other country.

Often unmentioned in the accounts, however, are two other striking truths: (1) International students account for less than 4 percent of all postsecondary enrollments in the United States, a figure below the OECD average. And (2) while America hosts a growing number of international students in absolute terms, its global share of this sought-after demographic has declined significantly in recent years.



Effective and sustained international-student outreach by Britain, Australia, and other nations is one reason for that seemingly counterintuitive state of affairs. In Australia, international students make up nearly 20 percent of all tertiary-level enrollments. Meanwhile, as the United States’ share of the world’s internationally mobile students dropped from 23 percent in 2000 to 16.5 percent in 2011, Britain’s share edged up, from 11 percent to 13 percent.

Unlike countries with tightly coordinated higher-education systems, the vast scope and decentralization of the American college landscape doesn’t lend itself to a nationwide international-education strategy. However, American colleges and universities don’t need to go it alone in pursuing their international-enrollment goals. Developing new partnerships, and strengthening existing ones, can spur significant progress toward increasing international enrollment. Here are some partnership options that deserve more attention:

EducationUSA: A U.S. State Department-supported network of hundreds of advising centers in about 170 countries dedicated to providing international students with accurate, comprehensive, and current information about applying to accredited American colleges. EducationUSA advisers also work with American higher-education professionals in support of their international-student outreach. Most of EducationUSA’s many services are free. Developing relationships with the dedicated professionals in the network can help you reach international students and support them in the admissions process.

Overseas high-school connections: International high schools, and international tracks of study at national schools, are rapidly growing in number overseas. And most students enrolled in those schools and programs aspire to pursue higher education abroad. Events held by the Council of International Schools and the Overseas Association for College Admission Counseling are among the many venues where you can meet and develop relationships with overseas high-school counselors and get to know their students and schools.

Regional consortia: State and regional consortia are growing in number and sophistication in the United States. Dozens of those bodies have formed or are in the process of forming, helping schools pool resources, share expertise, and extend their global reach. A list of such efforts is maintained by the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Pathway partners: These days, private-sector bridge, or pathway, programs for international students are increasing in number in Britain, the United States, and other popular study destinations. But there are abundant alternatives: They’re called community colleges. Dive deeper into the Open Doors figures, and you’ll see that about 200,000 international students in the United States are studying at the associate-degree level or in nondegree programs. Universities can initiate and strengthen partnerships with community colleges in their local areas and jointly promote the transfer pathway to prospective international students.

On-campus partnerships: Different units within a university often form agreements to work together for a common admissions goal. One example is when admissions offices collaborate with a campus-based Intensive English Program, or IEP, to offer conditional admission. The IEP, sometimes offered through a campus extension division, is designed to ensure that international students acquire the English-language and college-level learning skills needed for success in the degree programs of their choice. Through an IEP plus a conditional-admission program, students apply to both the IEP and a degree program and are approved for admission to the university before meeting the English-language-proficiency requirements for admission. Another example is a semester-of-study program that enables international students to enroll, through the extension division, in credit-bearing classes. Universities and community colleges alike can also collaborate with well-regarded external IEPs. Look to the Commission on English Language Program Accreditation, EnglishUSA, and UCIEP for accredited programs.

Current students and alumni: Let’s not forget how many enthusiastic prospective partners are among colleges’ international students and alumni. Students and alumni are often eager to assist with promotions and outreach. Select and train students and graduates to represent your college at overseas fairs, assist with social media, respond to email inquiries, and other activities. You’ll have a positive impact on your international-enrollment goals while you foster students’ professional and personal development.

All campuses, no matter how well resourced, are constrained by limits on time and staffing. By developing those and other partnerships, colleges and their campus units can expand their international reach considerably without a significant increase in expenditures.

Our experience at California State University at Northridge  was that growing international enrollment was a continuing effort. It took constant communication within the university to develop ways to interest international students; gateway programs like intensive English with conditional admission to a degree program; working with local community colleges as a key source of students; building international university relationships; 24/7 communication around the world; and six or seven recruitment-related trips a year. The results were positive. For the past four years, Open Doors has listed Northridge as one of the top three institutions for enrollment of international students among those offering degrees at the master’s level.

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