US market insights: smarter systems key to attracting international students

By Jason Howard, Managing Director, StudyLink Connect

There’s no doubt the US has finally awakened as an international student destination. As the Chronicle of Higher Education reported last December, the number of foreign students enrolled at American colleges has increased almost 73 per cent since 2005-6.

That’s why I was interested to see just how far the conversation has evolved over the last three ICEF conferences in Miami. When I first represented StudyLink there in 2013, US education providers were still debating the merits of using international agents. In 2014, they started asking how they could work with them more effectively. But last December, we had informed conversations about our technology platform, and how Australian universities are using it to effectively recruit international students.

For me, the tipping point moment at that meeting was when an agent presentation showed US providers now represent 30 per cent of their portfolio. That’s from a base line of almost zero three years ago.

Lessons from Australia

So what does a nation with over 4,000 colleges and universities, and 17 million students, think it can learn from a country with just 43 universities?

Australia has always outperformed in the international education market. In 2015 education services generated an impressive export income of $19.65billion, making it the largest services export for the nation. It’s still the third most popular destination for international students after the US and the UK – partially assisted by a more competitive Australian dollar and appealing immigration policies.

Another factor behind this success is the streamlined way overseas students can connect with agents and institutions, resulting in 640,922 full-fee paying international students last year.

The Australian model, built on those strong relationships with international agents, seems to be working, and this is why US institutions are more open to dealing with international agents rather than forcing students to apply directly.

It’s great to see the American International Recruitment Council (AIRC) work with the International Education Association of Australia (IEEA) to develop global agent certification standards, because this will form the foundation of transparent, streamlined systems and processes. Meanwhile, international agents are certainly lining up to get the accreditation they need to work with US institutions.

Why are US colleges going global?

In the past, international students may have been seen as ‘nice for campus diversity’ in the US. Now they are essential for enrolment numbers and revenue, with more domestic students choosing to stay in their home state and ever-increasing local competition amongst providers.

International student growth has been patchy. Around 75 per cent of colleges have more foreign students today than they did 10 years ago – but many have gone backwards and those are typically the ones also struggling with domestic enrolments. How this plays out will be interesting – I suspect we may see the overall number of providers decrease over the next decade with smaller colleges under more pressure to find students.

One thing is clear from the discussions I’ve had with providers and agents around the world. Working with agents takes a lot more than dealing with data and email traffic. You need to invest in streamlined systems to nurture long-term agent relationships.  Or, as agents told providers at the AIRC conference, “look to Australia and get professional.”
StudyLink. Education Connected.