Where should US universities target their international student efforts in 2021?

The story of international student admissions across the USA has often been presented as one of decline. But the truth is actually far more nuanced. 

For a time last year, it seemed as though every article we read and every email we opened about international students’ interest in the United States contained yet more pessimistic forecasts and gloomy predictions. 

The arrival of COVID-19, combined with the Trump administration’s failure to get a firm grip on the crisis as it unfolded, had an adverse and noticeable effect on the USA as a study destination. 

As 2020 drew to a close, the bleak statistics seemed to keep on coming. Most notably in November, the Institute of International Education published a report that showed a 43% decline in international student enrolments to the United States in 2020. 

And of course, there was our own research. 

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Our COVID-19 report found that where BridgeU 2020 matriculating students had chosen to switch destination countries on account of the pandemic, the USA experienced a 71% drop in interest.

The reasons for this decline are now well-documented and were confirmed by some of the findings in our survey. For BridgeU international students, the biggest factors that influenced their university decision making in 2020 were fears about the quality of the university experience, and concerns about their ability to secure a visa. 

But our research also found that the conventional narrative of US decline also masked some interesting nuances. For example, a preliminary analysis last summer suggested that the majority of our 2021 students were still shortlisting US, UK and Canadian destinations in the platform, with US universities receiving 34% of shortlists. 

So where do things stand as 2021 begins? 

To gain a better understanding of how prospective international applicants’ interest in the USA has changed in the past six months, we revisited our projections from last summer, with a focus on the USA as a study destination. 

Let’s talk about the less positive news first. Our analysis of BridgeU students’ shortlisting activity found that overall, interest in the United States did decrease between 2020 and 2021. 

But our research has also uncovered countries and localities where international student interest in the USA is growing. 

In which countries is overall interest in the United States growing?

When we analysed the 120 countries in which BridgeU operates, we found that 48 of these countries reported growth in interest in the United States. 

Many of the countries where students’ interest in the United States seem to be growing were based in South-East Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. 

The countries where the United States experienced the most growth in applications include India, South Korea, Kenya and Thailand. 

While our research showed fewer concentrations of growth in European and American countries, it’s still worth highlighting that the USA has become more popular year on year in countries including the Netherlands and Honduras. 

There are also countries in South-East Asia where interest in the United States appears to have decreased, including Singapore, Indonesia, China, Vietnam and Taiwan. 

But, as we’ll explain, even in the countries where interest in the United States has fallen, the story is much more complicated. 

In which cities and localities is students’ interest in the United States growing?

We started this article by posing the question - where should US universities target their international student recruitment efforts in 2021? 

Our year on year comparison reveals a number of specific cities and localities where the United States has enjoyed a growth in interest from BridgeU international students. 

Let’s return to three of our high growth countries - India, South Korea and Thailand. 

We note that, across these three countries, the cities with the highest year on year growth included Seoul, Hyderabad and Bangkok. We also find that Cairo and Sharjah were two high growth cities in Egypt and UAE respectively. 

It’s also worth noting that, even in those countries where international students’ interest in a US higher education had decreased overall, certain cities in those countries experienced a growth in interest. 

For example, Shanghai & Salvador were two cities where interest in the USA increased. But when we looked at the destination preferences of our students in China and Brazil as a whole, we noted that interest in the USA had declined.

Which US states are benefitting from a growth in international students’ interest?

Having analysed those cities and regions of origin where international students’ interest grew year on year, we then examined which US states and census regions have been the main beneficiaries of this growth in interest. 

Taking into account those 48 countries where international students’ interest in the USA rose, we found that that the most popular states in every census region saw increases in interest from these students. The most notable beneficiaries included: 

  • Across the states in the West, universities in California and Washington. 
  • In the South, institutions in Georgia, North Carolina and Texas. 
  • Illinois and Michigan universities in the Mid-West. 
  • In the Northeastern United States, all the most popular destination states saw increases - namely New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Connecticut. 

How can US universities adapt their international recruitment strategies?

Even in those countries where overall student interest may have diminished, US admissions teams & recruitment professionals should take note of those cities and localities where shortlists to the USA have, in spite of the events of 2020, increased.

The localised nature of the interest in a US higher education makes it more important than ever that admissions teams adopt a targeted and data-driven approach to their recruitment efforts.

US universities can capitalise on these opportunities in a number of ways including:

  • Continuing to expand their local networks with international schools in relevant markets & strengthening their regional partnerships where possible.
  • Tailoring their virtual events to the specific interests of students in these local markets, and serving content that addresses these students’ queries.
  • Working with international schools to communicate the holistic benefits of their institutions’ unique brand in a world where more teaching is now taking place remotely.

To get the full findings from our latest report and to learn more about our work with international schools, download your free copy of the report below! 

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