Looking for a Pathway Partner? Part 2: Funding New Programming

“University financial decisions that fail to take the full… benefits of international students into consideration tend to underinvest in getting/holding on to those students”

  • Part 2 of our 4 part series on pathway programs. For part 1, please click here

In our previous post, we discussed the potential of a Coordinated International Student Support Infrastructure (or, CISSI) model as a way of creating a holistic, monitored, and appropriately invested approach to supporting international students. 

Key to this approach is identifying, testing, and continuously improving the services available to international students.  And doing this takes appropriate investment: time, expertise, energy, and yes — money.

At many campuses we’ve engaged, the thinking about international student investment is, like many aspects of international student education, based on poorly-adapted domestic student approaches.  With the exception of legally-necessitated departments like International Student Services (issuing I-20’s and supporting visa compliance), student support costs are often managed university-wide, across the student base, with the view that these domestic-student-oriented services are adequate for int’l students.

This can lead to tricky questions from Finance when you propose extra student ambassadors/support staff, new programming, etc.

We get it. Budget considerations are real.  But purely from an investment point-of-view, university financial decisions that fail to take the full marginal costs AND benefits of international students into consideration will tend to underinvest in getting/holding onto those international students.

For example, key resources on campus (e.g., Intensive English Programming) are too often measured as independent profit centres.  IEP’s are asked to be entirely self-supporting. Or, to put the picture starkly in financial terms, IEPs are asked to support their costs purely on the semester or two of international student revenues they receive.  But what about the balance of those international student revenues when the student matriculates into the host university?

Is the lifetime value (LTV) of the student whose very presence on campus was only enabled by that IEP credited in any meaningful way back to that IEP?  Not often.  And as a result, IEP’s can see funding cuts, or outright closures, that have far larger negative impacts across the campus than solely on the IEP.

One attractive aspect of third party pathway providers is that they are willing to invest capital to launch/develop a new program.  And they are willing to create a high-touch service to support international student success as part of that investment.  This alone suggests a return on the investment in student support.  One that’s based on the simple (and again, starkly financial) logic that a well-supported student will be more likely to stay on your campus.

“One attractive aspect of third party pathway providers is that they are willing to invest capital to launch/develop a new program”

In an internal and self-sustained pathway model, how can the university achieve the same degree of student-support without external investment?

In the CISSI model, Finance is a key partner. University financial authorities need to be willing to model the investment and return on an international recruitment and retention project separately from the budgetary models that guide their thinking and action elsewhere on campus.

As pointed out above, such an approach entails the underlying assumption that international recruitment and retention takes place in a very different environment from domestic recruitment and retention.  It also requires of administrators a willingness to invest in international student retention projects knowing that some trial and error may be necessary.

Getting to a test-assess cycle of investment with these projects is a necessary step – just as it would be for an external provider – toward seeing what works within the very specific setting where international students come into contact with an individual campus.

If a key metric/assumption is that international student support will drive higher retention, build a plan that shows that higher retention in exchange for the investment.  If for whatever reason, you find your university missing those plan expectations, reassess the investment, gather data on what worked and what didn’t work, and proactively review with Finance.

“In the CISSI model, Finance is a key partner”

In our experience, this regular, voluntary exchange between departments creates a partnership where there was once a parent-child relationship (where the child asks for a larger allowance and the parent more often than not says “no”).

Why would a university want to go through all this when a 3rd party provider can do it for them?

The 3rd party pathway model is attractive to many universities for the very fact that these providers take on much of the risk by financing these projects upfront.  The projects tend to begin to pay strong dividends for these providers after a few years when infrastructure is in place, and enrollment increases take place within the established infrastructure.

Universities that agree to such an arrangement can often be disappointed to see that while their overall net revenues are increasing because of their pathway partnership, the third party provider is gradually increasing its margin, and after a few years, the university starts to perceive itself as “missing out” on higher revenues.

By assuming some of the risks upfront, the university puts itself in the position to reap the higher rewards that come as international enrollments increase, because the infrastructure investment will be done “at cost”, and the university will have greater control on scaling back or ramping up services in response to increasing or decreasing enrollments.

About the authors: Rick Rattray is a founding partner of the international consulting firm, The Parliament Group. Larry Kuiper PhD is academic director — International Student Success at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.