As the higher ed community anticipates a dip in domestic student enrollment, many institutions are looking for ways to recruit students internationally.
Mary Catherine Chase has spent virtually her entire career in the field of international recruitment for higher ed institutions. Her journey began through her own experience as an international student in London, UK. She subsequently worked for the British government in their U.S. embassy, as an advisor for UK universities that were marketing in the United States. Later employment by and consultation with private marketing firms and associations – including International Student Exchange Programs (ISEP) – fueled her passion and cemented her position as a true go-to in the field of international student marketing.
We invited Mary Catherine to be a guest on The Higher Ed Marketer podcast, to receive her perspectives on the challenges and opportunities of marketing to international students.
Navigating the Covid-19 Pandemic
Our conversation began with a discussion on why the Covid-19 pandemic was so impactful on higher ed and international student recruitment:
[Covid-19] rocked the community. And when I say the community, I don’t just mean U.S. institutions, or just marketers, or just international student services offices. It’s everyone in higher ed, because so much of our purpose in higher education is to create these global communities on our campuses… [T]hat mix of students is really driving the inclusion and diversity on campus.
Mary Catherine then emphasized the role that inter-institutional cooperation – not competition – had to take in order to adjust to “the new normal”:
Everyone was hit by this in different ways, and the challenge of it was: How do institutions come together as groups, to work with their nations to overcome the rapid changes in technology and innovation needed to bring those global classrooms online? How do we advance together to talk with government about changing visa policies?
In each nation that is a leading destination, there were very similar conversations happening between the organizations that higher ed institutions are members of…each country had that dynamic of having these predetermined relationships through these membership bodies, where they were able to go and really clearly communicate with government about how we needed to change policies to advance. And so that’s the thing that resulted in…positive outcomes. The community talking about these challenges that we weren’t competing in, but we were trying to solve as an overall community. And so the challenges, those different pieces of how we all dropped, and how we all restructured, and how we all had to reemphasize different points; but the positive is that the communities came together to solve not just a national or an institutional challenge, but global challenges in that.
The recovery process is not over. Re-thinking and re-tooling is an ongoing necessity at both institutional and governmental levels:
The government in the United States pivoted in terms of our visas and what is allowed for percentages of online classes and things like that. But, we’re moving in the opposite direction again. We’re in the “after times” now when it comes to that. [A]s universities [were] taking courses online, …that visa system that had been set up for a certain period of time to support international students taking a certain percentage of courses online – that’s changed. And so institutions need to sit back down and rethink course scheduling and the emphasis on what is online and what isn’t, because the visas aren’t there anymore.
If we think about it through a recruitment standpoint…the United States overall has to have very honest conversations between institutions, international students, and the way in which we decide what is and is not permissible under our visa structure. And if higher ed in the U.S. doesn’t pivot back to having more classes available in person, then we will have that conversation over in these markets around the world. Students will make future decisions based on what they hear today for future semesters, future enrollments.
The International Next Door
Every city has neighborhoods of people who maintain their ethnic identities. In many ways, marketing to prospective students in these communities requires the same tools as marketing to potential students abroad. How can we do that effectively? For Mary Catherine, the answer is authenticity, and to be authentic requires listening.
We need to listen to be authentic, right? I think, whether you are meeting with a population that is a statistically underrepresented population in the U.S. or a population that you are recruiting from that’s a major market overseas…no matter what, it is listening to the people that you …want to recruit. And marketers who want to listen…are the ones that are going to make the wins and the gains in terms of being able to understand and make those interpretations.
Higher education isn’t as dissimilar as when we look at other product groups, in other industries, that are trying to make that transition there. Other industries will have focus groups. Other industries will go and do all this test case[s]. We often, I think, in higher education, are worried and working on so many different things that we don’t take the time to do what we were trained to do from the start, which is: Do your market research to really inform your decision making… What can we learn about these statistically underrepresented, or the micro communities within our nation, that we can also apply as the same sort of frameworks for learning about the different populations we want to recruit from around the world?
Mary Catherine believes that effective marketing to international students – whether down the street or across the world – must be supported by three pillars: Relationships, Authenticity, and Community.
Building relationships involves intentionality:
In terms of relationships… find the people who can relate to the students and partner with them. [Say], “Here are our resources. What can I give you from our marketing tool basket that’s gonna help you improve these relationships?” So, maybe sometimes that research doesn’t have to happen in our offices. Perhaps that management of the brand and recruitment abroad doesn’t have to come from our offices, but through those relationships, that partnership.
Relationships require authenticity. And authenticity, Mary Catherine eagerly reminded us again, requires listening:
We can’t be authentic unless we know who we’re talking to. And so there [are] a couple of things that I love to see from universities, which is that investment of time, patience and listening [to] students. [Y]ou can put this in place through a couple of marketing activities. For example, inviting students to be part of your photo shoots and your video shoots, inviting them to come and share advice, which can become your testimonials. And then swagging them out following this, so that they feel that sense of surprise and appreciation of receiving [the] gift, but also so they’re taking it [back with them] to their home communities.
Forming relationships with our international students through authentic engagement with them should lead to their incorporation into the broader campus community:
The last [pillar] is “Community,” and not in an artificial sense, but really as that next step of…helping students form a community through your marketing practices.
It is such a crucial question that people ask all the time: “Do we need to segment out our marketing, and our communication, and our community, so that it’s bespoke to different international markets or to international students alone? Or, should we include them all together?” Well, you mentioned “DEI” earlier, and that “I” is “Inclusion.” If we are creating a separate, segmented group, then we’re not doing part of what our missions are on these campuses, which is creating an atmosphere where domestic and international students feel like they are part of that community. You know, we can really have an impact in the way in which they interact in dorms, on campus, and in classrooms, by showing that in our marketing: This is a global community, but on our campus.
One Small Step…One Giant Leap
We asked Mary Catherine if there was something that higher ed institutions could immediately do to kickstart an outreach to potential international students. Her answer came without any hesitation:
Hire an international student as an intern to look at your website! Number one, every day of the week! Have them look at your website, give recommendations. They’re going to remember and pull up the other websites they looked at from competitors. They’re going to give you really honest feedback. So, I think it is one of the greatest ways to start deep relationships with your current students. Then also, to hear a student give that competitive analysis from their perspective, to help them invite their friends’ perspectives in, and do it often, because we change our websites all the time.
Mary Catherine also strongly suggested making use of the U.S. Department of State’s website, Education USA:
This is “Brand America” when it comes to international education… [You may be thinking, “How do we overall empower and attract international students, both as sort of a gold standard, but also linking back to the major resources that international students need as they start their journey?” Go ahead and start linking to [the U.S. Department of State’s website] on your web pages for international students. This is where they’re going to find content that shows them how really welcoming [we are].
Discover more when you listen to the podcast!
Like all of our blog post reviews of The Higher Ed Marketer podcasts, there’s so much more to learn in the podcasts themselves.
- Covid’s lasting impact on international student recruitment (4:22)
- Marketing to different cultures in your local communities (12:54)
- The 3 pillars of international higher ed marketing (24:30)
- Why language matters in your community interactions (29:53)
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