According to the Institute of International Education (IIE), in 2001, 2.1 million students studied outside of their home countries. At that time, the U.S. commanded an impressive 28% of market share, followed by the U.K. at 11%. Fast-forward to 2014, and the number of students studying outside of their home countries grew to 4.5 million. While the U.S. again boasted the top spot, its overall market share decreased to 22%. Canadian schools captured 6% of the international market—no small feat given the comparatively small number of schools in Canada.
The good news is that student mobility shows no sign of slowing: By 2025, 8 million students are projected to study outside their home countries. However, numerous factors can and will impact enrollments—including currency fluctuations, in-country competition, government policies, and local economies, for example. Therefore, it behooves schools not to take any market for granted and to anticipate changes in this potentially volatile market. Debra Wilson, general counsel at the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), Pete Upham, executive director at The Association of Boarding Schools (TABS), and John Williamson, founder and president of Linden Boarding School Tours, share their 30,000-foot perspective on international student recruitment in today’s context.
How would you characterize global student mobility trends over the past few years? What has been most surprising?
DW: While the increase in international students attending independent schools has grown at a surprising rate, to me the most incredible part of this growth has been its presence in the day school market. In a very short period of time, we saw a number of day schools creating home stay or mini-boarding programs. This tells me two things: First, our schools can grow and innovate rapidly when there is a need or a growth area. Second, we need to create better resources or methods schools can use to learn from each other when they are taking on this kind of work. Such programs require risk and program structures that are difficult to develop when schools are launching and learning.
PU: International student enrollment in independent schools has grown dramatically. While much of the attention in our community has been on China, the growth has been broad-based. For boarding schools in the U.S. and Canada, every region of the world—with the exception of the Caribbean—sends more students here to study today than five years ago, despite a very strong U.S. dollar. Nevertheless, there are indications that the rate of growth is slowing, for a multitude of reasons.
JW: Student mobility remains predictably unpredictable. We analyze, forecast, wear talismans…and yet this trend’s only ambition is to betray us. We’ve learned that families often take the path of least resistance, and currently we (the United States) are the ones creating the barriers. The most affluent (and as such the most mobile) are graciously courted and welcomed elsewhere. It seems lamentable that a country based on the principals of “Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” now projects the polar opposite. We somehow forget that we are unable to predict student mobility due to factors beyond our control, such as toppled governments, mutinous wealth distribution, and bewildering developments in improbable places. Domestic independent schools forever hinge our bets on the predictable (our lowest return-on-investment) and then question, yet again, why our assets are bank-entrenched and not securing mid- & long-range enrollment strategies. Student mobility is just that—mobile—and it transforms itself based on events. I do not find global student mobility trends much different than in years past, other than the fact that this time the toppled governments and bewildering events have been created by us and not by others.
How do you anticipate the proposed (rumored?) changes in U.S. immigration policies will affect global student flow?
DW: I do think we will see families who are hesitant to send students to the United States if they feel that international students are not welcomed by the federal government, if the students may not be able to go home or the family may not be able to visit due to immigration changes, if visas may change to the extent that students may not be able to finish their degrees in the U.S., and if substantial numbers of students from their home country decide that other countries are more hospitable and potentially cheaper.
PU: There are at least four significant risk factors for our schools. The legal risk: Will new immigration policies or enforcement priorities affect the issuance of student visas for appreciable numbers of foreign students seeking to study in the U.S.? The demand risk: Will a new approach to immigration lead to broad perceptual changes that impact demand for U.S. education relative to other popular destinations (e.g., the U.K. and Australia)? The political risk: Will tighter immigration controls, coupled with a tilt toward protectionism, lead to reciprocal or retaliatory measures from other countries, potentially curbing the flow of students in one or both directions? The currency risk: Will the dollar (which is up roughly 20% in the last four years against the Euro and the British Pound, and more than 35% against the Australian and Canadian currencies) return to earth? Or will it continue to strengthen, driving up the relative price for U.S. education (and reducing the relative price for Canadian education)?
JW: Whether changes are rumored or not, the effects are real. In the first three months of 2017, I flew over 110,000 miles traveling to four continents and 14 countries visiting students, parents, visa officers, government officials, and consultants. Students are indeed looking to study elsewhere. Applications to a large percentage of U.S. universities are down 40%, and visa rejections are at an all-time high in numerous markets. Boarding schools confirm staggering application and deposit declines with fewer prospects in the admission funnel. Families abroad have repeatedly maintained that they are looking elsewhere until they feel the U.S. is again safe and welcoming. Our Canadian and U.K. boarding school colleagues are reaping the benefits. Occasionally words speak louder than actions, and in our current student flow, reactions to those words are speaking even louder.
What are you hearing on the ground in terms of how U.S. and Canadian schools, specifically, are adjusting in terms of the recruitment and retention of international students?
DW: U.S. schools seem to be sending the right messaging to students and families in terms of the schools themselves being diverse and welcoming environments. Schools are working hard to distinguish themselves and their communities from the national politics that are getting so much play abroad. I have not heard as much about the Canadian schools, but they should be appearing as a welcoming alternatives to U.S. schools that are at the mercy of national politics.
PU: I see several main approaches to date. Schools are seeking to reassure their international parents, alumni, and referral networks by drawing distinctions between the national political process in the U.S. and the values and commitments reflected in their school communities. They’re also engaging their student populations in more deliberate conversations around the legal, ethical, and interpersonal dimensions of these issues. From an admission standpoint, they are (or should be) diversifying their outreach overseas, in order to be less reliant on any one country or region. And they are (or should be) reinvesting in the domestic market as a natural hedge against potential disruptions to the flow of international students.
JW: Six of America’s Nobel Prize winners in 2016 were immigrants. This is a wonderful fact that helps me shape my conversations when building trust with overseas families, who are skeptical of U.S. government bluster. From our schools, I’m hearing the extremes. In one camp, it seems that two-thirds are cautiously waiting it out and performing armchair recruiting. In the other camp, one-third seems to be doubling down by traveling overseas in force, attending fairs, and meeting with parents, hosting receptions, and facilitating overseas strategies that should buttress their year-end enrollment goals. Whatever the choice, I hope we can all dig in, help each other, and carry the torch high.