How San Mateo CCD Rewrote Its International Education Playbook

“We set out to change that one country as a time and we did just that”

Back in 2012, when we initiated our International Education Program, we quickly realised that those “tried and true efforts” such as fairs, online advertising, joint degrees, satellite campus programs, brochures and web pages, and direct meetings with foreign students were simply not effective.

As a result, we decided to develop our own systematic approach, and in short order, the number of international students went from 80+ to 1,500 today, an increase of over 1,700%. The rate of growth is holding, as we see yearly double digits in growth. In a few short years; we leapt from the bottom and joined the top 30 community colleges in the nation, according to IIE International –a respected source in the world of international education. In 2017, our international students brought in over $40 million to our local economy.

Painfully, we discovered that community colleges are often poorly understood abroad and even sneered at by many (more on this). Over 90% of students we met abroad only knew about applying directly as university freshmen. Surprise! Over 40% of domestic undergraduates started at a community college (AACC data). However, on average, less than 5% of international undergraduates are in community colleges.

While transfer is a very well-accepted practice inside the US, it is hardly known abroad and there was no chance for a parent to hand over $24K for their son or daughter to study in a community college (parents’ first leap of faith) and to transfer to a selective university (parents’  2nd leap of faith). It hurts to see students abroad possessing biased information and making choices contrary to their best interest.

“We have discovered that a small city-state like Hong Kong sends more students than the entire country of Brazil”

Therefore, we set out to change that one country as a time and we did just that. It has been like swimming upstream. I personally observed that for every student who came to a community college booth, ten went to a university booth.

The natural instinct then is to have fairs exclusive to community colleges. But the result is lacklustre attendance. Therefore, we are now discussing the idea of bringing university transfer staff with us, which would make perfect sense and convince parents that we know what we are doing.

Further, we are very particular about where to visit and whom we talk to. For example, we scaled down our programs in South America because the students were a mix of language study students and international education students. We have discovered that a small city-state like Hong Kong sends more students than the entire country of Brazil. We can visit all the agents and schools in two days in Hong Kong and we cannot even get to Brazil in one day on a plane. The above is a just a few examples of our experience. We learned a great deal by doing— by being innovative, contrarian, and focused on students’ best interest.

Ready to Try International Education?

International Education can be a wonderful opportunity for community college students, but there are risks. It is a very complicated and delicate affair with high stakes, outside our familiar management and policy realm. Before an institution decides to venture into it, there are some prerequisites necessary.

It requires:

1) A clear vision, commitment from your Board of Trustees and the leadership from the top

2) Belief in diversity and in a world as a village by faculty and staff

3) Significant upfront investment in both time, money, and expertise

4) Political acumen, business flexibility and smart marketing.

Vision and Commitment: Do not do it for the money, because parents can quickly sense your motivation. Set a high purpose, such as educating the next generation of world leaders and act as such. Treat “students first” so it will attract parents who want to support the program for the betterment of their sons and daughters and trust in the institution. To that end, we provide priority registration, housing support, dedicated counselors, scholarships, customized transfer counseling, and much more.

Broad Buy-in and Belief in Diversity: These two are joined. International students bring in fresh perspectives, amazing cultural backgrounds and high course success and graduation rates. They also bring all of us out of our comfort zones and require us to add supplemental services. If we don’t have the right attitude and buy-in, we may feel resistance and question diversity and cost. Again, that will affect our interactions with students and they can sense it.

Investment: We turned black in the second year of operations with a fairly bold and broad investment in money and relationship building. We invested in building pathways with American universities, provided travel support and established local representations abroad. We developed programs to enhance institutional partnerships with high schools and US government branches and staff. Five years into our operations, we made over 40 trips and just Spring 2018 alone, we visited 28 countries.

Skills in International Politics, Business Development, and Cross-border Marketing: This is probably the toughest challenge. Time and again institutions will randomly assign an admissions staff member to travel in hopes of recruiting students. Keep in mind, parents hold a very different, often negative, view of community colleges. It takes way more than someone who carries glittering brochures to convince a parent. To put it this way, a typical university anywhere in the US would have an easier time attracting students from abroad than a community college. Recruitment by community colleges, however, needs greater skills, better knowledge and extensive management experience.

An institution needs an executive with deep knowledge, extensive experience of community colleges and excellent cross-cultural skills to ensure success in community colleges’ international education efforts. Many misconceptions about community colleges abound, therefore, program staff need to be committed to the cause and to be very well trained and supported in order to attract international students and to confront their questions and concerns.

*San Mateo Colleges of Silicon Valley are fully operated by the San Mateo County Community Colleges District and act as its international brand and presence

Author: Jing Luan, Ph.D. Provost, International Affairs San Mateo Community College District