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If you think of a worst-case scenario for the international admissions industry in the United States, the Fall 2020 semester would have to be the new gold standard. The impact of Covid-19 on our profession has been far larger than most of us could have imagined. Colleagues have been laid off in downsizing moves by financially strapped institutions, others have been furloughed for much of the summer, while many still face an uncertain future. This next academic year will be the most disrupted since World War II emptied college campuses. Barely a fraction of most college’s incoming international student class will be able to begin studies in the coming weeks.  

 So, how do we rebound for the next recruitment cycle? Unfortunately, travel is most certainly out. A variety of images have been circulating on various social media channels regarding where Americans can travel at this time. It isn’t pretty viewing. Even for those countries where you can travel, the potential health risks, lack of affordable flights, inevitable quarantine periods upon entry, and the likelihood that individual schools won’t allow overseas visitors who aren’t students, staff, or parents make international recruitment trips impossible for the foreseeable future. 

Some of you reading may respond to our current travel ban by saying “welcome to my world,” as long-time armchair recruiters accustomed to not having massive travel budgets to go abroad in search of students. Let’s take a look at the two other primary methods of international student recruitment currently available: Digital Recruitment and On-The-Ground Partners. 


More than ever, international admissions staff must rely on an ever-growing, essential digital footprint to connect with prospective student and parent audiences. As many armchair colleagues can attest, at every point in the recruitment cycle, one or more of the following digital tools can help admissions officers live where your audience lives: 

  • College website refinements 

  • Data-driven insights on target markets * 

  • Multi-lingual web content * 

  • Social media platforms 

  • College search engine presence * 

  • Social ads  

  • Retargeting * 

  • Mobile apps * 

  • Informational webinars * 

  • Segmented e-mail comm plan  

  • Virtual high school visits 

  • Online fairs 

  • Live chats 

  • Peer-to-peer communications 

  • Accepted student events 

  • Pre-departure video sessions 

  • Virtual orientation programs 

Current global data compiled by We Are Social and Hootsuite shows that for the first time, over half the world’s population now uses social media on at least a monthly basis, 99% of which are doing so via mobile devices.  Moreover, this same report reveals that two-thirds of every man, woman, and child on the planet has a mobile phone. As a result, we are no longer simply a digital-first world, but a mobile-first one as well. Institutions that take a mobile approach to the recruitment of international students will be better positioned to excel in this challenging landscape.  


An essential complement to a strong digital strategy is having partners that can support what you do both overseas and within the United States. Since you can’t be everywhere in person (or anywhere these days), having trusted individuals and organizations that can represent you in various ways is increasingly a priority. Few institutions have staff based overseas to perform these roles, but investing in representatives abroad that can do so may soon need to be on the table for discussion. 

In addition to overseas representatives, there are several other options that your institution should consider in order to increase brand presence in key recruitment regions. While there are varying levels of activities each of these can accomplish, they can be your eyes and ears on the ground-- your intermediaries with your future students and their parents.  

  • Alumni 

  • Agents * 

  • Third-party educational pathway providers 

  • EducationUSA 

  • US Commercial Service 

  • Institutional partners 

What many US higher ed institutions have overlooked and designated as a primary market are those domestic sources of international students hoping to transition to bachelor’s and graduate degree programs. Several universities now report the U.S. as either their top or 2nd most common source of new international undergraduate students each year (e.g. University of Illinois at Chicago, University of Missouri at Columbia). In analyzing the available date from SEVIS By The Numbers over the last three years, I put together a summary of the top three domestic sources for overseas students currently studying in the United States. Together, these categories represent over 172,000 international students. 

  • Community colleges (67,266) 

  • ESL programs (57,932) 

  • Domestic high schools (47,507) 

Now is the time to be crafting a new path for how you think about, recruit, and enroll international students. Many of the old ways of doing things are ineffective or completely off the table given our world’s current circumstances. Should you be interested in learning more about any of the items listed above italicized with an asterisk *, please reach out to Elle Butler, IDP Connect Marketing Manager, for more information on how you can leverage these essential IDP services. 

CP - Author Image - Marty Bennett
Marty Bennett01 September 2020