Higher education landscape

Global Rebound: Understanding the recent bounce in international student recruitment to the U.S.

International recruitment is finally on a rise for the US universities. Admission leaders share the contributing factors and the strategies that will help to keep up the numbers.

Leslie Birch
October 26, 2022
5 min
Global Rebound: Understanding the recent bounce in international student recruitment to the U.S.
/* Media query for screens with a width of 1600px or more */
Global Rebound: Understanding the recent bounce in international student recruitment to the U.S.

Cialfo had the opportunity to participate in several educational sessions during NACAC’s 2022 conference in Houston last month, along with admissions experts representing leading higher education institutions around the U.S.

The conference theme was “Resilience,” a word that was echoed throughout the discussion as each panelist talked about the recruiting challenges of the past few years and their hope for a rebound along with emerging opportunities shortly.

One of the sessions at NACAC 2022 was titled: Global Rebound: Understanding the Recent Bounce in International Student Recruitment to the U.S. This interactive session delved into the many ways higher education admissions and recruiting teams have had to abruptly shift and change strategies in response to the global pandemic. COVID impacted every country differently resulting in significant changes to historical student mobility trends. The panel addressed how changing trends affected their institutions and other steps they implemented (including test-flex and test-optional policies) to continue reaching their international enrollment goals. 

Moderated by international education consultant, Clay Hensley, the session was comprised of admissions leaders from both private and public institutions across the country and included:

Karly Brockett, Senior Associate Director of Undergraduate Admission, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)

Jonathan Burdick, Vice Provost for Enrollment, Cornell University

Vern Granger, Director of Undergraduate Admissions, University of Connecticut

Chair-Elect, National Association for College Admission Counseling

Yvonne Romera Da Silva, EdD, Vice President for Enrollment, Rice University

The discussion started with a look at falling trends in international student recruitment (worsened by the pandemic) over the past few years. In 2020-21, 359,787 international undergraduate students were enrolled at U.S. universities—a decline for the third year in a row. The single-year drop was an unprecedented -14%. This is the 1st time the U.S. has seen successive drops since 9/11. 

Subsequently, this trend has changed expectations along with recruiting strategies at all of the represented institutions. 

Yvonne Romera Da Silva, EdD, of Rice University spoke of her university’s move to test-optional as a way to approach changing expectations. She said, “Following the pandemic and the move to test-optional I think that was one of the biggest shifts in international recruitment and admissions because this brought the barrier down. Especially for younger students who were 16 and 17 and not sure if they were going to apply in the U.S. or UK, or their country’s national education system. At Rice we were thrilled to see in this last cycle that the students were still there - they were still present and applying.”

She also noted that the pandemic sped up Rice’s timeline for hiring additional admissions staff, during a period when many other universities were downsizing. 

Another method Rice employed to attract and retain more international students was to expand financial aid opportunities. She described the reasoning behind this, noting: “Before we had very few need-based offers available to international students and we shifted to be able to offer more financial aid to families from a range of income levels. Not every family can write a check outright for a $65,000 - 75,000 education. That has helped us to broaden our international student presence - in the pandemic year of 2021 we increased our international student population by 50% and that continued to grow.”

Cornell is another institution that has adopted flexible testing and score policies. Cornell’s Jonathan Burdick, previously of the University of Rochester, described the decision to move to test-optional at Rochester.

“When I started at Rochester in 2003, international students made up about 2% of the student population (with most coming from U.S high schools). By the time I was leaving, we were about 27% of international students representing the total student population - that was deliberate and part of our growth strategy.”

Jonathan Burdick, Vice Provost for Enrollment, Cornell University

Speaking about the change in strategy, he added, “At that time we were focused on the question of the SAT because it is very unusual for there to be an exam that’s outside the curriculum that’s the basis for college admission. In 90% of the world, the exam and the curriculum are unified. We were looking at whether it made sense for students to take a test prep and then an exam that otherwise was not part of what they had to learn. In the U.S. of course it’s more established. So over 8 years, we established that if we apply the same analysis to the international exams or the regional exams (e.g. A Levels, IB exams, etc.) across the globe then we could apply good intelligence using that data that could replace the functionality of the SAT or ACT completely. So we went text-flexible in 2011. Students submit the test from their native countries and we would take the responsibility of evaluating that in the same way that we would an SAT or ACT. That had an immediate impact on international students and was part of our growth going forward. From there we went test-optional.”

At Cornell, every college has its criteria for admission so when the necessity of eliminating required testing came up, they invited faculty from each college to vote for either going test-optional or score-free. Three of Cornell’s largest and most prestigious colleges ended up voting for score-free.

The University of Connecticut also leveraged new strategies to manage fluctuating conditions. Vern Granger described how UConn approached international recruitment, saying: “Our area and the I-95 corridor is dominated by private institutions and so in a lot of ways, a university like the University of Connecticut - in some ways our behavior has to be more like that of the private institutions. That’s been a part of our strategy as we look to rebound and rebuild our international student population. We focused on three areas: scholarships, marketing research, and employing partners to diversify the countries we reach out to.”

UConn’s efforts have paid off in visible increases in the number of international enrollments. Vern shared this data: “In the past year, we’ve seen a big rebound. For the fall of 2021, the percentage of international students was about 6% of the total student population. For this year, international students make up a little over 10% of the total number of students. We had to recalibrate our strategies and be able to think more like a private institution. India had not historically been a big sender of students to UConn, but we saw significant increase in enrollments from India over the past few cycles.”

At UCLA, the state of California legislates the number of in-state and out-of-state (including international) students that can be enrolled in universities across the state system. This year UCLA has been tasked to go down to 18% out-of-state students. That 18% includes out-of-state AND international students. As a result, Karly explained how the university is approaching this while being purposeful in its international recruiting strategies. One way of doing this has been to put less emphasis on U.S. standardized testing and more on the curriculum students are studying in their countries.

“About five years ago, we were thinking about how we review our applicants. It meant understanding where a student studies, the culture of their curriculum, and how that impacted standardized testing - we wanted to put more emphasis on curriculum. The change was strategic in terms of how the processes were built across the globe and having a more informed understanding of what a student is experiencing in their own country. We were reaching out to leaders at international schools and communities.”

Karly Brockett, Senior Associate Director of Undergraduate Admission, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)

In addition to expanding financial assistance and offering more flexible testing/academic requirements, many higher education institutions are also exploring innovative ways to help international students succeed throughout their college experience. Vern spoke of how UConn is applying its approach to diversity to the international student community. 

He explained, saying: “We are being intentional about the international students we bring in and what they can bring to the UConn community. I think we’re seeing more and more institutions (in the public space that I’m talking about) really thinking about how are we bringing these students in and not just focusing on a checkbox of percentages of international students and percentages of students of color but connecting the students to the different resources that are available to help them succeed and ultimately graduate.”

“For instance, UConn has a working group that consists of our global affairs office, our advising community, our schools and colleges, and our enrollment management. We meet regularly as a way of making sure that we are aligning our resources and creating that horizontal experience that our international students can get that same high-quality, high-touch that we do on the front end and providing that on the back end as well.”

Jonathan also spoke of how Cornell strives to build a supportive community for international students, saying: “It’s also important to understand the lifecycle of international students on campus. You have to consider what goes on on campus after they arrive if you want to be serious about attracting and enrolling them meaningfully. So that means not just adjusting and adding an international dimension to your institution (like orientation, housing, athletics, etc.) but resetting everything you do on a global dimension and building out that capacity afresh with intentionality focused on international students and their experience.”

The session wrapped up with a question associated with the conference theme “Resilience” - when each panelist was asked what they see as signs of hope for the international enrollment sector. Their answers were an encouraging sign for a bright future and the start of the global rebound.

Here’s what brings them hope:

Jonathan: “Talent is distributed evenly around the world. Yet 96% of the world has no access to our higher education institutions due to finances and other barriers. There is no place for higher education to go but to change that equation and to expand more dramatically and deliberately into that 96% in all the ways that we can.”

Karly: “The power of leveraging technology for connection. We saw it through the pandemic and now we see it as a continuum to connect with students and counselors globally to have those important conversations.”

Vern: “You are seeing large institutions in the USA connect the admissions piece with the student success piece. We are starting to see more of this in the last few years. It is very hopeful that we are helping international students be successful on our campuses.” 

Yvonne: The hopefulness rests in the relationships that we have the opportunity to build. I’m so grateful for opportunities to connect at events like NACAC, CIS, and International ACAC and to engage with Cialfo and other partners. There are so many opportunities and the shared belief that these students have so much to contribute to the world. It is truly an honor to be a part of their journey .”

Many thanks to Clay Hensley and our panelists for sharing their personal experiences and thoughts on the road ahead. To learn more about how Cialfo can help your higher education institution find the right-fit students from the largest network of international high schools, contact our team

Cialfo thanks moderator Clay Hensley, and the esteemed panelists at NACAC 2022 for sharing the insights on global rebound in international recruitment.

Images: Theo Decker

Fill out the form below

Opt in for monthly updates

Thank you for your interest! A member of our Partnerships Team will get in touch with you in the next 24-48 hours.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Get a head start on your Australian undergraduate journey

Find out more about how Cialfo supports applications to all Australian universities, while giving you a fee waiver on your first application.

Get helpful insights on higher education.

Join the Cialfo Community for full access to expert insights, past webinars and up-to-date tips on the college admissions process.

You might also like this

Student recruitment
What students want from university recruitment teams - Cialfo research

What do high school students want and expect from universities as they go through their college application journey? Here's what we learned.

Read More
Higher education landscape
Trends in international student mobility during the pandemic

Read More