The Pandemic May Have Changed International Recruiting Forever

In a typical fall, Cornell University’s admissions-staff members would disperse around the globe on international-recruitment trips. “China, multiple times a year. South Asia, twice a year for sure. India, the same. Africa, for at least three weeks. The U.K., Europe, Canada,” said Shawn L. Felton, the university’s director of undergraduate admissions, reeling off a lengthy list of destinations.

This year, of course, is anything but typical. With borders closed, international flights limited, and a virulent disease continuing to spread, recruiters at Cornell and colleges across the country are grounded.

Still, colleges have an incoming class to fill, one that is ever more dependent on international students. Though foreign students account for only about 6 percent of American higher-ed enrollments, they often pay higher out-of-state rates and cover the full cost of their tuition. NAFSA: Association of International Educators estimates they contribute $41 billion to the American economy. At the graduate level and in the sciences, international students are a critical piece of the talent pipeline.

Indian Students Think Twice About Attending U.S. Universities

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Old-style international recruitment: Mumbai, India, 2017.

But the pandemic prevented international students from going to American campuses this fall. At the undergraduate level, their enrollments fell 15 percent, more than those of any other demographic group, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.

The staying power of the coronavirus has thrown next fall into question, too. Will international students be able to enroll? Will they want to travel to a country with higher-than-average infection rates? Will they want to do so if remote learning confines their American experience to a computer screen?

As a result, college recruiters find themselves not only having to calibrate their message in a time of uncertainty but altering their entire approach to overseas admissions. For a field long reliant on hopping on an airplane, Covid-19 could bring lasting change.

“What’s worked for us in the past,” said David Di Maria, associate vice provost for international education at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, “is not what’s going to get it done for us tomorrow.”

International-student mobility has been interrupted before — by economic contractions, by global terrorism, even by other pandemics, such as SARS and MERS, two other coronavirus outbreaks. Yet there is little that colleges can look to as precedent now. Covid-19 is global in its scope, an economic, health, and social crisis rolled into one.

While the pandemic interrupted college admissions last spring, it struck much later in the process, when application deadlines had already passed and many admissions offers had been made. The challenge facing colleges this fall is a different animal: persuading students to apply in the first place.

Even if the coronavirus is brought under control, international enrollments might not automatically rebound.

International students could decide to stay closer to home. Or they might choose to study in countries other than the United States. A recent survey by World Education Services, a nonprofit international-education research organization, found that about 40 percent of prospective students were considering alternate destinations. The two most popular choices, Canada and Britain, made provisions to admit international students this fall.

American colleges could also lose out because of global perceptions of how the United States has responded to the pandemic, said Paul Schulmann, director of research at the organization, known as WES. Seventy-three percent of prospective international students said they were extremely or moderately concerned about the health risks of Covid-19 if they traveled to the United States.
Likewise, three-quarters of overseas applicants surveyed by QS, an international-student recruitment firm, gave the United States low marks for its handling of the pandemic, far higher negatives than for other destination countries.

Even if the coronavirus is brought under control, international enrollments might not automatically rebound. The number of new international students in the United States, in fact, has been falling for the past three years.

Covid-19 could have a hangover effect on the global economy, and American higher education is among the most costly in the world. Cuts in research budgets could reduce stipends for graduate students, many of whom are from abroad. Other countries have long made it easier for international graduates to stay and work, a competitive advantage. And American colleges have overly depended on a handful of countries, particularly China, heightening their vulnerability to educational, demographic, and political changes there.

“As incredibly disruptive as the pandemic has been, I think it’s accelerated existing trends,” said Anna Esaki-Smith, a co-founder of Education Rethink, which conducts international-education research and analysis. “Maybe universities will go back to normal — but normal had its challenges.”

One potential bright spot: a change in presidential leadership. In its survey, WES found that 40 percent of prospective students were less interested in going to the United States because of the political climate under President Trump.

Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s election, hailed by international students and international educators alike, could turn things around. In the days since the election, international college-search websites have reported an uptick in searches for American colleges.

The president-elect has said he would carry out policies that could make the United States more attractive to international students, such as giving graduate students in STEM fields a green card along with their diploma, as well as reversing Trump-administration actions like the ban on travel from several majority-Muslim countries.

More important, Biden’s election could mark a change in how America is viewed abroad, restoring its image as a welcoming and open country.

Just as much of American life — work, socializing, shopping — has shifted online during the pandemic, so, too, has international recruitment. A survey this past summer by the Institute of International Education found that 84 percent of colleges had adopted new international-recruitment strategies, said Mirka Martel, the organization’s head of research.

Some larger institutions were able to shift gears more quickly, and their practices became models for others, Martel said.

Colleges are organizing recruitment fairs, hosting informational panels of students and professors, and conducting campus tours, all online. Traditional in-person recruiting is constrained because an individual admissions officer — or even a team of them, like Cornell’s — can travel to only a finite number of places; going online renders such limitations irrelevant. During a recent Cornell admissions event, 1,200 prospective students logged on from around the globe.

Jessica Guiver, director of international undergraduate admissions at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said that, paradoxically, the pandemic may be extending her college’s reach. “For an institution like mine that is regional and not well known overseas, we may be getting to students we wouldn’t otherwise,” she said.

Still, armchair recruiting has its downsides. Recruiters said they missed the ability to connect with students and families across a table. In some parts of the world, students lack access to personal computers or high-speed internet service needed to participate in online sessions. And with many high schools conducting classes online, Zoom fatigue has set in. “Students are saturated by Zoom,” said Evelyn Levinson, director of international admissions at American University, in Washington, D.C.

Like other admissions directors, Levinson said she was shying away from virtual fairs with large numbers of colleges that can make it difficult to stand out. Instead, she has focused on outreach to specific high schools and has worked with groups such as EducationUSA, a State Department-sponsored organization that provides broad admissions advice about studying in America.

The University of Texas at San Antonio and 40 other colleges that are part of the Study Texas consortium have banded together to host a state-focused virtual fair, attracting students from Indonesia, Paraguay, and Taiwan. Franklin & Marshall College has teamed up with other institutions with overlapping international-applicant pools — including Mount Holyoke College and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign — to put on virtual events, drawing a bigger audience than the liberal-arts college might on its own.

To make up for the lack of in-person recruitment, many admissions directors are trying to adopt a high-touch approach.

Colleges are also timing their programming to accommodate international interest. Franklin & Marshall offers all of its admissions events twice, in the morning and the evening, while Cornell maintains a 24-hour chat on its admissions website, with different staff members taking turns to respond to queries. At Macalester College, Sarah Schmidt, the associate director of international admissions, rises in the middle of the night to take part in admissions events in Asian time zones. “Getting up at 2 a.m., it’s jet lag of a different kind,” said her boss, Jeff Allen, the Minnesota college’s vice president for admissions and financial aid.

To make up for the lack of in-person recruitment, many admissions directors are trying to adopt a high-touch approach. Levinson reviews the database of students who have requested more information about American every day; if she sees students from her region — she is directly responsible for recruiting students in the Middle East, the eastern Mediterranean, and Latin America — she sends them an email inviting them to a one-on-one Zoom session. On a recent morning, she had just wrapped up a 30-minute Q&A with an applicant from Albania and had another, with a student from the Dominican Republic, scheduled for the afternoon.

Prospective students express uncertainty about the coronavirus’s impact, but many of their questions are the same as in past years, such as what to write about in their application essay and how roommates are assigned, admissions directors said.

After the Zoom calls, Levinson connects applicants with current students to answer additional questions. She hopes the personalized approach, while time-intensive, will yield serious applicants.

Rajika Bhandari, president of the IC3 Institute, which seeks to bring college counseling to high-school students around the world, said that international alumni have been a largely untapped resource for overseas recruitment. Third-party recruiters and colleges’ offices overseas are, like alumni, ways to provide on-the-ground connections for prospective students and their families when admissions officers can’t visit there.

Some colleges have had luck closer to home. Guiver has focused some of her efforts on recruiting from the pool of international students at American high schools and community colleges. The coronavirus prevented many of them from traveling back home.

Guiver said she thinks there is “no going back” to the old ways of international recruitment. That may not be an entirely bad thing. Flying around the world is environmentally unsustainable, but it took the pandemic for her to fully think through that implication of international travel, she said.

Admissions officials said they had also thought more deliberately about messaging and how to distinguish their institutions. Macalester emphasizes that internationalism is one of its core principles. At Franklin & Marshall, Lukman Arsalan, who took over as admissions dean in July, conducted focus groups with 70 current international students to get a better sense of what they valued in their college experience. Because 20 percent of the Pennsylvania college’s students are from abroad, understanding their perspective would have been a priority anyway. Covid-19 made it critical.

Like many of his colleagues, Arsalan expects pandemic-era recruitment practices to continue even after the public-health crisis recedes. While they may have begun as stopgap measures, many offer long-term sustainability. In fact, he said, colleges could become even more innovative, such as allowing students to start their education overseas or offering more American degree programs abroad.

A former international student himself, Arsalan said the pandemic could even be a positive thing for international education. At many institutions, “international admissions has been on the margins, and people didn’t pay it as much attention,” he said. That’s changed. “You don’t realize what you have until you don’t have it.”

Bhandari agrees: “I don’t think this period is going to be a blip. I think it’s going to lead to a fundamental shift.”

Still, Allen, the Macalester vice president, worries that admissions officers will face pressure both to resume face-to-face recruiting and to keep up the virtual outreach — but with the same level of staffing and resources.

What this all means for next fall, though, is hard to say. Colleges say international inquiries remain steady but won’t necessarily translate into applications and then into enrollments. An initial marker to gauge student interest could be the early-decision deadline, although admissions directors said they expected those applications, which typically carry a binding commitment, to be down.

“I don’t think anyone has a crystal ball,” Levinson said, “that doesn’t have some cloudiness in it.”

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