Higher education needs international student engagement more than ever – and the solution is clear

“Set up right, chatbots in higher education can handle over 80% of all queries”

International student engagement is crucial to higher education, from the first touch to the last. Each interaction is vital – from engaging with prospective students to support admission targets, to connecting with current students to ensure they feel supported and don’t add to the worryingly-high dropout rates.

However, many departments are struggling to connect with international students, and it’s having a clear and damaging effect. In the 2020-21 academic year, the number of international students at US colleges fell by 15%, according to the Institute of International Education and the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

So why are universities and colleges struggling to connect with international students? The answer is clear. While they’ve been investing in new websites, online registration, e-learning and cloud computing, they have neglected a crucial element of digital transformation – digital student engagement.

Students have sky-high support expectations. Phone and email are like rotary phones and postal service to students. They simply can’t meet the expectations of a 21st century student that has grown up surrounded by technology. These students demand support that is fast, 24/7, and personalised – and phone and email just can’t deliver this. 52% of Millennials say they feel anxious about taking a phone call, and 60% of Gen Z say they ‘hate calling people’.

The solution is simple, yet it’s having transformative effects within higher education – embrace digital student engagement technology, with live chat and chatbots at the core.

Jump on the live chat bandwagon

To begin increasing international student engagement, live chat is the must-have of all channels. Live chat caters to students’ need for swift support by giving them the instant digital communication they expect. It’s also incredibly convenient, allowing them to connect on their laptop or on-the-go via their mobile. Higher education live chat teams boasted an average 88.3% customer satisfaction (CSAT) score in 2021, just showing how popular the channel is among students.

While live chat is the favoured digital channel across the student population, it also has tools that specifically help with international student engagement, such as auto chat translation. This tool allows international students to speak in the language they know best – and it doesn’t matter if your agents are multilingual or not. Auto chat translation immediately translates the messages into the agents’ language, and then back again, breaking down the barriers for international students to reach out and ask questions. It opens a virtual door for international students to connect without a second thought.

For the more ‘shy’ students, proactive chat invitations are excellent conversation starters. With proactive chat invites, an agent can easily spot a student within their dashboard who looks like they may need support (i.e. visited a lot of pages on the website) and send them a personalised message. As well as encouraging students to connect, whether prospective or current, it also solidifies a sense of confidence in students as it shows a school wants to get to know more about them – beyond just their tuition funds!

Embrace automation and chatbots

The next step in increasing international student engagement is automation. AI chatbots allow schools to engage with website visitors no matter their time zone, making it easier for schools to engage with international students across the world. Powered by Natural Language Processing, AI chatbots can understand the user’s intentions and so engage in more human and helpful conversations. Set up right, chatbots in higher education can handle over 80% of all queries. Take Thompson Rivers University which is now offering 24/7 support with an AI chatbot that handles 83% of all incoming chats within their Future Students department.

This 24/7 availability doesn’t just matter to international students, either. Today’s Gen Z students expect to connect whenever they want, not when they are forced to during the school’s business hours. And importantly, they too are the demographic most open to chatbots, agreeing that chatbots make it quicker for their issues to be resolved. With the ability to handle unlimited simultaneous chats, bots result in shorter wait times and faster responses, keeping students and agents alike happy – all the while cutting costs in agent hire.

However, as of 2021, only 21% of higher education institutions were using chatbots, compared to 43% across industries. While this gap is narrowing, it is another sign of the misplaced digital transformation investment by many universities and colleges.

Integrating these tools into an omnichannel customer engagement platform completes the picture. These platforms link every digital channel – live chat, chatbot, email, ticketing, SMS – and their data into a unified and easy-to-use agent console so students receive the smooth, omnichannel experience they expect.

Students’ support expectations have never been higher, but this can be used to a school’s advantage. While some universities and colleges stick loyally to phone and email support, those that embrace digital student engagement will reap the rewards across the full international students lifecycle.

About the author: Chris Bechtel is VP of Marketing at Comm100.