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Chinese international student recruitment in the USA post COVID-19

June 1, 2020 |   Nicolas Chu

The current pandemic has hit the international education sector hard. And while international admissions and recruitment professionals are faced with a tremendous amount of uncertainty across the board, the impact that COVID-19 and its aftermath will have on Chinese international student recruitment is particularly difficult to assess.

Uncertainty about when and how campuses are going to re-open, a lack of clarity on visa processing times and increasing political tension between North America and China are making it hard for admissions departments across the USA to plan for the intake periods ahead.

To help American institutions overcome these challenges, I decided to enlist the assistance of international student recruitment expert Marty Bennett. Marty has directed international admissions efforts at five different institutions in the US and England and travelled to recruit prospective students and their parents in 70 different countries. He has recruited students in China since 2004, and during his time with EducationUSA, he helped develop the content for a China-specific mobile app to assist students and parents navigate “Your 5 Steps to U.S. Study”.

Together, we had a fascinating fireside chat about the state of Chinese international student recruitment in the US during the COVID-19 pandemic, and where things might head in the future. (You can check out the full video here.) Here are some of the most salient points from our discussion.

COVID-19 will not level but reduce the playing field

According to Marty, COVID-19 will further disrupt institutions that were already on shaky ground.

“There are 4500 accredited colleges and universities in the United States,” he said. “And recent surveys of leadership before the pandemic even broke suggested that around one in ten presidents of universities and colleges were suggesting that their institution may close or merge because of financial pressures. And that was before the pandemic.”

The financial impact of the pandemic might very well speed up this process, predicts Marty.

“All of a sudden, you have 25 to 30 per cent of your total student population not being able to come to start [their studies]. The financial impact on international higher ed is going to be devastating. And it’s going to push a lot of colleges that were on the brink financially over the edge. I predict 10 per cent of colleges that perhaps would have been closing in the next three or four years will now close in the next two years. So that’s going to be accelerated.”

A strong digital presence is more important than ever

During our chat, Marty stressed the importance of having a strong multi-channel digital presence in whatever market you’re trying to recruit from – including China.

“The philosophy I always expressed to advisors that I would be working with overseas or at US colleges and universities is live where your audiences live,” said Marty. “That should be a guiding principle of whatever you do and however you approach your student markets that you’re looking to recruit in. And that means getting to know that answer in different countries and markets you’re looking to have a presence in. And anyone who’s been in international recruitment for more than a minute dealing with China certainly knows that the social media landscape is completely different there. So you have to have a different strategy there that’s not reliant on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to get your content to your intended audiences.

“It also means not relying on your institutional website to do all your talking for you. Even if you have great translated content on your website for a Chinese audience, for example, that doesn’t mean it’s going to get to that market in an efficient way because the likelihood is some parts of your site may not be searchable by Chinese audiences.

“They’re on their phones too. China has the world’s largest number of mobile users in the world. So they’re living online, but they’re also looking at their phones. And that’s an important piece of the overall puzzle – how well you present your information on a phone is going to be key to your effectiveness.

“So locally hosted options for website content, having a presence on social media channels that your audience has a presence on and having a mobile-first approach are all very important pieces of that puzzle, so you’re not just yelling out into the darkness somewhere.”

The current pandemic has shown just how far behind American institutions are in terms of their digital presence in China. “I think it’s long overdue for US institutions to have a robust digital approach and significant online presence as an important way to reach their prospective students,” said Marty. “I mean, just look at what happened when all the US colleges started going online at a time of the year when letters to students admitted for the fall had just gone out. There were plans to hold admitted student events in different places around the world. Those have since collapsed or at least been shelved [due to the pandemic]. But if you don’t have those pieces already in place to do virtual events, like open houses or orientations, you’re left scrambling.”

Never underestimate the importance of connection

Marty made the important point several times during our chat that for both students and parents, studying overseas is a very personal decision that is often driven by emotions. After all, if parents are going to spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on an overseas education, they don’t just want to know that their child will be receiving a quality education, but that they will also be safe and have a positive experience.

Marty recounted his experience recruiting Middle Eastern students post 9/11. After this devastating disaster, recruiters were unable to undertake recruitment tours to Middle Eastern countries, Middle Eastern students faced increased security clearances for visas, and those same students feared that, even if they were able to obtain US study visas, they would face hostility in the US.

This situation is not dissimilar to that which Chinese students are currently facing, particularly with Trump labelling the coronavirus the “Chinese virus”. Many Chinese parents and students are likely feeling trepidation about studying in the US in the current climate, perceiving themselves to be unwelcome.

In 2005, Marty and his colleagues at various institutions in Indiana formed a state consortium, and organised “live virtual college fairs” using video conferencing technology to connect the institutions directly with EducationUSA advisory centres in the Middle East. “It was our way of showing the advisors and the students in those countries that we were committed to them, even though the press certainly was promoting this image of the United States as unwelcome to international students from the Middle East,” said Marty.

This type of “virtual outreach” eventually led to physical events, including a locally hosted conference for advisors, who then acted as “multipliers” who spread the word to potential students in the Middle East about Indiana’s institutions in the US, which led directly to students applying to Marty’s institution.

In this type of environment, being able to make a personal connection to those students and parents can go a very long way. Marty recalls one mother from Kuwait who was considered sending her twin boys to his school, but was anxious about doing so. “We used to have the term ‘helicopter parents’ in the US,” he said. “She was that on steroids. We called her the ‘Blackhawk helicopter parent’. She had some very serious questions about housing arrangements for her sons should they choose to come to my campus, and I was able to answer her questions directly over email, phone calls and Skype. So it was that opportunity I had to connect with her virtually and to answer her questions that kind of paved the way for her to be able to feel comfortable sending her sons to the United States at a time when there was a lot of doubt out there.

“We’re in similar waters these days. And those methods [of connecting directly with students and parents] might be slightly different. But certainly, the approach needs to be the same. We need to be proactive. We need to be on the front foot and collaborating with our colleagues at other institutions.”

Consider how the current climate affects students' decision-making

With the US being one of the worst-affected countries in the world in terms of COVID-19, it’s understandable that students and parents might be fearful about the health risks of studying in the US at the moment.

To help combat this, presenting accurate information is key, said Marty. “We have places where there are very few cases at all, like where I am in northwest Ohio. So when addressing that particular issue, if you can present the hard numbers on the ground to show it’s not a problem in your county or the area where you are … then you should have that information available.” Having up-to-date information about the number of local COVID-19 cases, health measures being taken in your institution and region, and trends in terms of the spread of the disease can help allay fears and prove the area is not too badly affected.

While it is important that institutions make this sort of information available to students and parents, Marty says there is a far more powerful way to communicate the message that US campuses are safe – by using current Chinese international students, the vast majority of whom opted to stay on campus when the country went into lockdown. If those students have received support from your institution and generally had a positive experience during this time, and would be willing to talk about their experiences on a video or live chat session, this can be incredibly potent. “They can be the ones telling your story about where you are as an institution right now and the compassion you’re showing to your current international students. That’s better than gold, as far as I’m concerned.”

Start investing in partnerships in China now

Another point Marty stressed during our chat was the importance of investing in partnerships on the ground in China. He talked of his experience at AASCU (American Association of State Colleges and Universities), working with CEAIE (China Education Association for International Exchange) to create dual-degree programs in the early 2000s, whereby Chinese students were able to do the first and last years of their four-year degree at their host institution in China, and the middle two years in the US. Despite the development of these programs being an enormous undertaking, they were able to bring them to fruition through collaboration.

And this was just the first step. “Those dual-degree programs led to some really significant relationships that developed between my institution and Chinese partner institutions that have since brought about graduate-level exchanges rather than just an undergraduate-degree exchange,” said Marty.

Marty also talked about institutions who have relationships with partner institutions, or those with study-abroad locations (New York University, for example, as a campus in Shanghai), and the many options this can open up for US institutions in terms of giving Chinese students as close to a campus experience as they can while travel bans are in place. Arts college Franklin & Marshall, for example, have started a semester program for Chinese first-year students in Shanghai, where students are taught remotely, but are still able to study full-time in a campus-like environment.

“Those kind of remote options, where they can be together as a cohort, has real value. And certainly that shared experience really helps pave the way to a much easier transition now that they’re already connected with classmates from their college,” said Marty.

It’s these relationships that give institutions the flexibility to explore “creative, outside-of-the-box options” like this, when it comes to dealing with unprecedented circumstances like the ones in which we find ourselves.

But building these relationships will take time. “Institutions that don’t already have a physical presence or partners [in China], they need to invest in those relationships now so that they can bear some fruit down the road. You have to play the long game on this, and it’s not going to happen overnight. China is not a market you can suddenly walk into. Several trips or all the social media investment in the world is not going to make you an instant player. You have to have a track record and have some clout there. If you don’t already have that, you need to be patient and your institution needs to be patient.

“That’s the reality of international recruitment these days – it is about the relationships you have and the network you have, of counsellors, of advisors, of resources, of agents, of partner institutions, that you can call on in these times.”

US institutions can't afford to rest on their laurels

In the end, and as the COVID-19 pandemic has made clear, US institutions cannot simply assume their reputation alone will be enough to draw students to their shores.

“When I start any conversation with colleagues on the higher education side about global competition for students right now,” said Marty, “I like to remind them that [Chinese international] students have many more options these days and are seriously considering many more options than they were 15 or 20 years ago. Where in the past it was the US, the UK or Australia, now there are literally dozens of players that are becoming increasingly major destinations for students.” Marty also rightly pointed out that even China itself is becoming a major destination for international students in its own right.

That’s why US institutions need to start investing in their digital presence and on-the-ground relationships now in order to bolster Chinese international student recruitment numbers beyond the pandemic. 

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