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Welcome in Any Language

Representatives from four institutions with thriving international populations explain how and why they recruit students from all over the globe.

By Margo Vanover Porter

*"International students are not a commodity," cautions Ann B. Radwan. "They're students who are looking for an educational experience that will be useful to them in their future lives," says Radwan, associate vice president for academic affairs/international studies at St. Cloud State University, St. Cloud, Minnesota. "Before you decide to expand the number of international students, you need to look at your institution's infrastructure and support services." In other words, just because admissions are down, don't target international students in response to lagging enrollments.

Timothy Brunold, of the University of Southern California (USC), Los Angeles, echoes those words. "Make sure you have the resources and organization available to welcome international students," urges Brunold, dean of admission. "All institutions are used to working with the student body, but this group of students—who may not know the culture or the language very well—will have issues that domestic students simply don't have.

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"First, give thought to how they will be served. I suggest that institutions don't just look at international students as a quick fix for some enrollment issues. Rather, make a true commitment to globalization and an international student population so when those students do come they have a greater chance of success."

California Opens Its Doors

Brunold speaks from a position of authority. USC, known to enroll more international students than any other American college for nine years running, has a long legacy of making its foreign-born students feel welcome. With international students representing 19 percent of USC's total enrollment in 2010, last fall, international student enrollment grew to an all-time high of 6,944 students (up by 5.45 percent from the previous academic year).  

Brunold attributes much of the increase  at the university to word-of-mouth advertising. "People come to study; they go back to their home countries; and then their friends, family, and colleagues come back to USC," he says.

Of course, it also doesn't hurt that USC makes a concerted commitment to independent recruiting. "For six or seven years, we've been recruiting quite substantially overseas," says Brunold. "Unlike many other institutions, we've chosen not to use agents. We used to go on the organized college tours that are popular, but after a while, it seemed obvious that we could turn out a large audience on our own."

At USC, the five countries with the largest student representation are China—1,951; India—1,499; South Korea—724; Taiwan—471; and Canada—300. "If you count Hong Kong as part of the People's Republic of China, you can add 193 citizens to the 1,951 number," he says. "In all, we have about 116 countries represented in our student body."

To serve newcomers to the States, USC staffs its office for international students with about 15 full-time employees. "They help international students integrate into the campus and deal with the social and personal aspects of living in another country," says Brunold, "with visa and immigration issues, and with all sorts of services. This is layered on top of the other resources available to all students."

Inviting International Partnerships

"The biggest struggle is that parents of students abroad do not understand how community colleges operate. Community college is a uniquely American enterprise. There is no model like it abroad."

Nithyanantha "Nithy" Sevanthinathan, Lone Star College System

St. Cloud State University, set in central Minnesota, has established a goal of becoming a center for world education. Why? "We have an obligation to bring to our students experiences and information that they might not have in the community, if this philosophy did not exist," Radwan answers. "That includes an international dimension, a global view. It's very much related to the mission of preparing students in the state to be competitive in the world market."

To further that goal, St. Cloud is reaching out to institutions in China, Turkey, Chile, and South Africa by developing strategic partnerships, dual-degree programs, and joint-degree programs. Radwan explains that the popular "3+2 program," for example, allows international students to take graduate-level courses while completing their baccalaureate degrees, obtaining their graduate degrees within a five-year period. Basically, students arrive with three years of their bachelor's degree coursework completed at their home universities. After two years at St. Cloud, they receive a bachelor's degree from the home university and the master's from St. Cloud. "They lop off a year," she says. "The program is extremely appealing. It coordinates with student desires, demands, and aspirations."

International students account for about 6 percent of St. Cloud's student body. "We have more than 1,100 inter-national students from more than 85 countries," Radwan explains. "We also have 26 sponsored students, among them Fulbright scholars and other students sponsored by the U.S. government. Our largest groups are Saudi, Indian, Chinese, and Nepalese students."

At St. Cloud, international students are offered "cultural sharing" scholarships, which allow them to obtain the in-state tuition rate as long as they maintain the required grade point average and engage in community outreach. "Our state leaders believe that international students help Minnesota build networks abroad and internationalize the education of our population," says Radwan.

She continues, "Minnesota is a very progressive state." She cites the example of nearby Little Falls, Minnesota, which invites international students to holiday feasts on Christmas and Thanksgiving. "The entire town gets involved in hosting a progressive party for international students. It's amazing. Our international students can't wait to sign up for it each year."

Interpreting the Community College Concept

"The way we treat international students will shape future relations between our countries and theirs, since many who return home become leaders of their nations."

Sudhakar R. Jamakhandi, Bluefield State College

With the surge in international students, it's no surprise that community colleges are getting into the act. "Community college is becoming a very good choice for students abroad," says Nithyanantha "Nithy" Sevanthinathan, system director of international programs and services, Lone Star College System, Houston. "The biggest struggle is that parents of students abroad do not understand how community colleges operate. Community college is a uniquely American enterprise. There is no model like it abroad."

To spread the word, Sevanthinathan attends recruiting fairs and visits high schools in various regions of the world. For the past several years, he has focused on recruiting efforts in Asia. "The largest populations for the past two years have been from China, India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Korea, Mexico, and Japan. We concentrate on regions where there is already high demand, and show students and parents their options and ways to make their choices."

For example, Sevanthinathan recently traveled to Vietnam, where he set up a booth at a recruitment fair. "We offered materials about our school and explained why students should choose it, including affordable tuition, a variety of classes, well-equipped classrooms, and positive testimonials from other international students. We show them what we look like—our buildings and our student population—and encourage them to ask questions."

The most common question, he says, is "What happens after two years?" His answer: "We give them a road map of what they can do if they want to pursue a four-year degree. When I explain community college, parents are in a state of complete shock because they have never heard of it. It's very exciting to provide them with this educational opportunity."

He estimates that recruiting two new students from Vietnam covers his travel expenses. "That's how we look at it," he says. "Last year alone from Vietnam, we got five to eight students. We are looking to the future. If you don't build for the future today, you have no idea what you will see tomorrow. We also want to make sure that when students are looking into colleges they know the name of Lone Star College in Houston." 

Out of a total enrollment of close to 69,000, Lone Star currently counts 2,514 international students among its five campuses. When international students are asked why they chose the college, 95 percent of them say it's because of family ties, according to Sevanthinathan. "We are the oil and gas capital of the world. Many multinational people come and go. That's been our attraction."

Because local taxes support it, the institution charges international students out-of-state tuition, which comes close to $7,500 for 12 credits each for two semesters and 6 credits for the summer session. Local students would pay about $2,000.

"To issue an I-20 [document that supports the student visa], an international student has to show us close to $22,000 to cover room and board, insurance, tuition, and expenses," he says. "That's the only way we know the student has the money to go to any of our colleges. That's very important."

Lyrics of Long-Distance Learning

At Bluefield State College in West Virginia, international students jumped from 21 to 88 during the four-year period between 2006 and 2010.

Sudhakar R. Jamkhandi, professor of English and coordinator of the office of international initiatives, attributes the increase to a variety of factors, including the institution's Web presence, participation in the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange Program and the Fulbright programs, scholarships for international athletes, and word-of-mouth advertising.

"Parents who are paying the fees look at tuition costs, quality of life, cost of living, and all of those things," Jamkhandi says. "After that, it's largely students and parents talking up the college. If you don't treat the first student right, then the second one won't show up. We have seen growth in two populations—Asians and Gambians. I attribute that largely to the positive experience of the first students. They then told friends about Bluefield State."

Jamkhandi, who readily admits he likes to "sing the song of internationalization," adds that the institution recently signed a memorandum of understanding with a private educational service in Turkey. "We're waiting for approval to deliver online degree programs," he says. "Once that happens, we can actually have international students who get a degree from us through these online programs. Turkey will be our first test."

With the program in place, students in Turkey will be able to do coursework online from their home computers. But, they will have to go to test sites owned by Bluefield State's Turkish educational services partner. The firm will be responsible for proctoring all tests, which will then be sent to instructors at Bluefield State for grading and evaluation. To ensure the authenticity of the process, the memorandum of understanding requires students to show their pass-ports when they take the proctored tests. "This is an experiment," he says. "Once we work through the kinks in the process, we can use this as a prototype for other countries." He hopes to enroll Turkish students for online classes for the fall semester. 

At Bluefield State, international students pay about twice the $2,300-per-semester, in-state tuition rate. The college makes an exception for students sponsored by the U.S. State Department, which include participants in the Fulbright and Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange programs. "For State Department-sponsored programs, because it's taxpayers' money at work, I managed to convince our leadership to charge the in-state rate to international students," he says. "Why should we charge the regular international student rate when this is taxpayers' money?"

Jamkhandi believes that institutions actively recruiting students from abroad should hire simpatico personnel. "When offices shut down for the holidays, for example, international students often must fend for themselves. It can be a very lonely life. I would urge not only the institution but the entire community to be mindful of the loneliness an international student might feel, especially during weekends and holidays. It takes a loving heart and an open mind to recruit international students. It shouldn't be solely a business decision.

"The way we treat international students will shape future relations between our country and theirs, since many who return home become leaders of their nations," he continues. "Several opt to remain here—and we want their brainpower to increase our own economic competitiveness. Either way, their presence is extremely beneficial."

MARGO VANOVER PORTER, Locust Grove, Virginia, covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.

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Are You Ready to Enroll International Students?

If you've decided to go outside the United States for students, heed this expert advice:

Provide appropriate assistance and services. "Many of these students have never traveled abroad, says Nithyanantha "Nithy" Sevanthinathan, system director of international programs and services, Lone Star College System, Houston. "An international student adviser can help with SEVIS [Student and Exchange Visitor Program] documentation, orientation, academic advising, fee payment, campus resources, cultural adjustment, tutoring, and time management. These are services you want to provide when they arrive at your campus. We meet them, guide them, and explore with them the resources they need to become academically and socially successful."

Lone Star also assists international students with transferring to four-year institutions. "In addition, we offer junior, senior, and graduate classes through partnerships with several universities," explains Sevanthinathan. "Students at our Montgomery or University Park locations who enroll with one of our partner universities can actually complete a bachelor's or master's degree or earn a teaching certificate without traveling to the partner university's campus."

Understand your institution's mission and culture, and make sure your agent—if you use one—comprehends both. Sevanthinathan has seen agents who generate a lot of activity but sign up students who turn out not to be a good fit and transfer out after one semester. "If your students can't be successful, you fail your mission," he says. "We are not selling insurance; we are changing lives. We are helping students make a dream come true."

Develop a learning community involving international students. "Make sure they are part of the campus and not simply ghetto-ized, which can very easily happen," says Ann B. Radwan, associate vice president for academic affairs/international studies, St. Cloud State University, St. Cloud, Minnesota. The university's international student organizations sponsor monthly cultural cafes, as well as cultural nights that feature food, dances, and presentations. "Most of the 400 to 500 people who come are from the community," she says. "People may drive 50 miles-in the winter-to attend."

Set a realistic goal. According to Radwan, the best practice is to recruit about 10 percent of your student body from outside the United States. "You don't want to look as though you are a company selling your education only to international students," she says. "Our international enrollment is at about
6 percent. My personal goal is 10; that's a realistic target."

Consider international offices. The University of Southern California (USC), Los Angeles, operates offices in China, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Taiwan, and India. "One of our strategic priorities is to be an undisputed global institution," says Timothy Brunold, dean of admission. "We don't seek to call ourselves 'global' simply because we have international students. Rather, we want to position ourselves as an international institution, because we want to offer an education that is relevant and isn't only U.S.-centric. One of the ways we are able to connect with other cultures is to actually have a presence on the ground."

Brunold points out that these foreign offices, while they may ultimately benefit recruiting efforts, were established to assist with alumni relations, government relations, and academic programs with other institutions. "Not all institutions have the resources to set up shop on the ground, but establishing a presence in a country makes things a whole lot easier. You have an office with people who have your institution's best interests in mind, are in the same time zone, and presumably are local and know the culture. It's like having an embassy or consulate there."

Know your competition. "There is certainly no dearth of American colleges and universities recruiting," Brunold says. "But, we're also getting competition from Canadian, Australian, and British universities. We know America is not the only choice of prospective international students. When I go to China, for example, it's not uncommon to see that recruiters from several Canadian colleges are coming next week or were there the week before."

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