Universities Launching Pathways Themselves, Part 3

“Too often, we see communication that’s unidirectional from institution to agency”

Part 3 of our 4 part series on pathway programs. For part 1, please click here

In addition to Larry and Rick, who authored blogs #1 and #2, there is another co-author on this blog: Vanessa Andrade is director, International Partnership & Program Development and Deputy Senior International Officer at California State University, Northridge.

In our previous blogs, we noted that if you are thinking about a pathway partner, it is likely you are seeking outside help to overcome internal resource constraints.

Our contention throughout this series has been that much of the value that third-party pathway providers offer can be developed in-house, using a coordinated approach we call the Coordinated International Student Success Infrastructure (CiSSi) model.

In the second blog in the series, we shared that a key component of bringing your university or college’s full resources to bear is a close collaboration with your institution’s finance dept, which requires keeping an “Eye on ROI” (Return on Investment).

If you’re a smaller institution, recruiting is one place where ROI is hard. Recruiting can be risky. There are long sales cycles of investment before students show up. And the costs of any incremental headcount to do all the things necessary for recruiting success can make it nearly impossible to show a near-term ROI, putting the onus on international recruiting leaders to carefully set expectations with senior administration in advance of any investment.

For these reasons alone, recruiting and marketing are an area where getting outside help can make sense. But you know that – that’s probably why you’ve been considering a third party provider in the first place.

In this instalment, we’ll offer up some best practices that should either help you in selecting a partner and/or in making incremental gains on your own.

Managing Agents

One of the most challenging tasks in international recruiting is setting up and managing a vast network of agents. For the best practice institutions with whom we’ve worked, we’ve found that they share a fairly common three-phase process for agent management: Relationship development, Goal-setting/establishing shared responsibility, and Progress review and course correction.

The last of these – progress review/course correction – is the most challenging. It’s also a great place to better understand obstacles to enrollments from both the agents’ and your campus’ perspectives – what’s working, what isn’t working, and what you should do about it.

You want business partners that can commit to you at some level, and if you’re not getting that, you need to identify and fix what’s not working or gracefully look for another partner.

“One of the most challenging tasks in international recruiting is setting up and managing a vast network of agents”

Studies have shown that responsiveness and strong communications are more valued by agents than mere commission, though this continues to shock many of our higher education clients.

“I make sure I and my team return agent calls the same day,” one well-respected leader of international recruiting told us, “they are our business partners, each helping many students.”

This investment in time on your part needs to be shared, and you want open communications so that you’re creating a win-win together with your partners.

Staying Connected to Market Demand

The next most difficult skill for many of the institutions with whom we’ve worked is conducting real-time, all-the-time market research, and yet it’s something pathway providers do extremely well.

Institutions tend to design programs from the inside-out, meaning they tend to focus first on what they can do, and then seek to find a market for it. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, in fact, we offer a workshop on entrepreneurial approaches that include “focusing on your strengths” as a key starting place.

The challenge can come where there’s not enough market feedback into that process to focus on the intersection of what an institution can do and what the market wants.

In our experience, it’s generally only the largest institutions that have someone on staff to actively research trends and competition and provide this market insight back to faculty and administration, and fewer treat market insights as critical to their program development process. But even for those institutions unable to resource continuous market research, there are some oft-overlooked avenues for getting market feedback:

Familiarisation (“Fam”) tours for your best agents, with time baked in to review and discuss what they’re seeing in the market, what’s most successful for them, etc. Too often, we see communication that’s unidirectional from institution to agency. Take some time to get them talking to you about what they’re seeing.

Regular review calls with your lead contact at the agency. How are things going for them? What unmet needs are they seeing? Trends?

“Throughout, it’s important to keep your agents suggestions/needs clearly in mind”

There are bound to be cultural differences and language barriers in how information gets shared in these meetings, so if you have any colleagues from your best agents’ home country, invite them to join in the call to assist in making ­the calls productive and as transparent as possible. And meet them at every reasonable opportunity – not necessarily “fam” tour style, where you’re supporting a visit to your campus, but when you’re in the market.

Delivering Student Recruiting & Scale Economies

In speaking with institutions, we frequently hear the number of agencies and countries visited as something of a performance metric, e.g., “we’ve visited 15 countries this fall.” While travel is an important component of the role, it’s critical to not let it be an end in itself, as new program offerings may accomplish some of the same ends.

Take, for example, the institution that works with campus stakeholders to create “study abroad” opportunities for high school students from targeted countries in collaboration with agents that have developed recruitment relationships with secondary schools. Creative approaches that bring the market to you can pay dividends over large quantities of agent relationships alone.

We’ve helped institutions come up with highly prioritised and focused travel to build on pockets of existing success, and these strategies often yield better results at a lower cost.

While travelling in these focused regions, we advise institutions to fill calendars with highly concentrated activities that include events and fairs (e.g., EducationUSA), work with local counsellors, meetings with their agents, and open house sessions featuring local alumni and faculty as ways of making the most of travel expense.

And just because a group is visiting multiple countries in a package doesn’t mean you need to hit every country. Stay focused on your priority regions; the marginal costs of going to a region that’s not a focus for you include more than just the cost to go there. You may be short-changing a region where you have more potential.

Providing Greater Market Responsiveness

One of the least complex places to look to improve recruiting results on your own is within your own sales “pipeline.” Where do you lose prospective students? At inquiry? After application? After acceptance? A study our colleagues at INTEAD conducted a while ago compared the response time to international student inquiries for New Zealand, Australia, and the US.

The results in time taken to get back to a student inquiry on average: 2 days for universities from NZ, 4 days from AUS universities, and a whopping 22 days for US universities. If you don’t know how quickly your institution responds, listen in or do some secret shopping – it could be an area for immediate improvement.

“If you don’t know how quickly your institution responds, listen in or do some secret shopping”

On a similar vein, a new SIO at a Mid-Atlantic US University was presented with a limited recruiting budget with which to arrest a downward trajectory in international enrollments. After some systematic evaluation of their application and admissions process flow, it was possible to note where they lost students along the way.

At the end of the analysis, they made changes to the priority problem areas that resulted in a 60% improvement in admissions. It was a handy way to grow enrollments cost-effectively. Something to consider on your own campus if you haven’t already.

In our final instalment, we’ll talk about raising awareness and appreciation across the campus to create a holistic view of international student success.

  • For Part 1, please click here
  • For Part 2, please click here

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. Vanessa Andrade is director, International Partnership & Program Development and Deputy Senior International Officer at California State University, Northridge.