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Recruiting Intelligence

12 Ways To Develop Strategic Advantage For Enrollment


The student recruitment landscape has been in a state of flux that was forced upon all of us. Institutions have adapted in obvious ways (ramping up online education) and subtler ways that vary by institution. [Note: In Spring 2023, We updated this blog post from our previous summary of 10 international recruitment options to now incorporate 12 options]

Looking a bit over the horizon, we recognize that there is always the potential for unanticipated disruptions in addition to the challenging factors we see very clearly. As we consider what is next, the lever that has the greatest value is flexibility. The ability to ramp up or down with relative ease. The avoidance of plans that lock us into something long-term constricting our ability to adapt as circumstances change.

Building Flexibility Into the System

With that in mind, we offer up a quick comparison of 12 ways to develop strategic advantage for enrollment and their relative flexibility. In this case, we measure flexibility by two factors:

  • Time: Investment of administrative/staff time into making it happen and sustaining it
  • Money: Investment of capital (cash out) to make it happen

When we consider time, we also think about commitment – alliances and partnerships come with contracts that may or may not be easy to modify or escape from as factors on the ground change.

All in all, we see the largest value in those options that offer the greatest flexibility – least amount of effort (time), least amount of financial investment (money), and ability to ramp up or down on short notice (flexible contracts).

A little ways back, Brad Farnsworth, formerly at ACE and now running Fox Hollow Advisory, joined me to present at the CIEE Summit 2021. We discussed some of the options raised in this blog post and how they relate to institutional initiatives that deepen internationalization efforts.

Read on for more on those strategic advantages.

Seeking Strategic Advantages

Developing programs that differentiate your institution has tremendous value when student enrollment is declining, or really, anytime you are pursuing growth (when are you not?). Now these options have more value than simply driving enrollment. Some of them build brand reputation on a larger scale that have value in terms of attracting amazing faculty, winning research investments, building donor support, and of course (not to be slighted), fostering advances in education and striving for new knowledge and discovery (which also builds your brand as a high-achieving institution).

Another important caveat here, each of these options has the potential to succeed or fail (or just stagger along) based on the level of resources (human and financial) devoted. Strong leadership with appropriate resources typically leads to success. Weak leadership (commitment to the effort in name only) and/or underfunding lead to less than stellar results. We’ve all seen/experienced this.

A valuable element of external partnerships we need to point to: they can create incentives and consistent commitment that withstands tumultuous internal events such as budget changes and senior staff turnover.

When reviewing our 12 options below, it can be difficult to know which one(s) will be most successful at your institution. So many factors to truly weigh to figure that out. The short answer: which option(s) have a strong committed champion with some level of authority and social capital at your institution? That's the option to bet on.

Achieving Global Flexibility

12 Recruitment Options Chart


These options can be ramped up or down quickly and in far less time than others.

1. Outsourced distant campuses – with this option, fixed costs of building and maintaining a campus have already been absorbed by a strategic partner who understands the local market and local regulations. If the partner has a strong track record of delivering academic quality (student first perspective) and offers distinct branding opportunities to your institution rather than lumping all students from different institutions together, you build the student relationships you want while minimizing costs. The opportunity to scale enrollment and programs offer real flexibility.

2. Online Recruitment Platforms – there has been a steady parade of recruitment platforms for the past decade as the internet has matured (recall the first iPad came out in 2010). Over the past five years, these platforms have matured and have developed better user interfaces and student reach. Student receptivity to, and use of these platforms, has grown as well - there is greater comfort and overall sharing of information among students about platform use.  Still, these platforms tend to make great claims when they first launch and then disappear 2 to 3 years later. If your institution is an early adopter of a new platform, be sure to negotiate hard to get a steep discount and strong promotions -- the value may not materialize. If you are a user of a more established platform that has remained on the scene for more than 3 years, you may have better results. Typically there is little or no up front cost for use of the platform and the payments only flow when students enroll at your institution. The commission rate is where you can negotiate depending on the platform's desperation to sign up institutions. The other important factor is the student-directed promotions the platform will provide so that your institution stands out among the many, many, many, many other institutions on their platform. Webinars, videos, email and other direct to student communications highlighting your brand will be important. These promotions will likely require a fee. Look for a package deal, maintain control of the content and the lead tracking, and oversee the list segmentation for the greatest return on investment. From a flexibility point of view, these platforms can be turned on and off fairly easily. Review the contract with flexibility in mind before you sign.

3. Recruiting agent network – building a network of recruiting agents and high school counselors with strong ties to your institution is a relatively low cost and powerful tool for any institution. The investment that makes this successful is the manager on the institution side – often mistakenly overlooked as unnecessary or underfunded. A well-traveled, culturally empathetic, business manager will make a recruitment network effective and hold every counselor’s feet to the fire while supporting their hard work for the institution. This option can be scaled up and down easily.

4. Digital marketing – a mainstay for any enrollment office. Generating leads and nurturing them with targeted advertising per audience segment. Tracking and consistent campaign optimization are both critical elements. Media buys and staff expertise are required. The ability to ramp up and down in any given market make this option valuable and highly flexible.

5. Recruitment travel – This one appeals to the global programs office staff. This is one of the main reasons they took the job. But that doesn’t mean it is successful. A strong manager at the helm will keep this avenue working as a recruitment tool. Hard looks at the travel schedule, locations, and real results of each trip will ensure the investment is paying off. Without that, the term boondoggle comes to mind. Turning this one on and off at a moment’s notice is valuable.


These have been valuable to many institutions:

6. Fully-owned remote recruitment offices – this option takes time to set up in various locations with all the regulatory requirements in different countries. In the right locations and with the right, managed and incentivized staff, the investment in maintaining an office overseas can pay off. This option also offers institutions the opportunity to build/broaden fundraising and alumni relations efforts regionally.

7. In-house ESL programs – this option offers tremendous control for an institution though it comes with associated staff and marketing costs. Putting your own ESL program in place does not mean students will automatically find it and enroll. This option does allow an institution to modify its enrollment criteria to admit candidates that might have been rejected previously.

8. Outsourced remote recruitment desks – these have become increasingly popular as recruiting agencies around the world realize they have a new product to sell. If the “desk” purchased (or leased) is devoted entirely to your institution, the quality of the recruitment work can be highly valuable, though the costs can really rack up if you consider outsourcing desks in multiple locations.

9. Overarching Agent Management Services – also called "super agents," these services involved universities contracting with larger recruitment agency that manages many sub-agents. There are inherent challenges the super agents face as they try to enforce (or not) their policies and level of integrity at their subagent locations. Universities have little control over that and suffer when less than ethical activities occur. Larger universities benefit from the broad reach of these contracts which support the inflow of hundreds or thousands of student applications and the support for nurturing and conversion that the agents provide. Smaller institutions and lesser known institutions often find the cons outway the pros for a variety of reasons. In terms of flexibility, these contracts do require a significant investment of staff management time to make them effective. Agency management service contracts can be often be modified or rescinded within a year if regional circumstances change or when institution strategy changes...unless of course your leadership was foolish enough to sign the decades long contracts that some of the more powerful service providers push. Our advice: maintain control of the contract terms to provide flexibility to your institution. 


These are valuable initiatives that have become more common over the last decade and are somewhat, or very, inflexible. The investment of time and money create a scenario that is difficult to modify or move away from if circumstances change:

10. Fully-owned distant campuses – obviously, a huge investment in time and money here. Local governments often step up with major resource commitments – which also give them more leverage and control that may cause some institutional bristling. There is little room for abandoning that kind of investment easily if circumstances change for the institution. With relatively few of these out there, the opportunity to stand out is significant.

11. Articulation agreements (and dual degree programs) – These have been around forever and over the last decade we’ve seen the growth of articulation agreements between far flung campuses. These take a tremendous investment of time. And with that level of effort, there is resistance to changing them despite the short- or long-term disruptions that may diminish their value. The level of effort to build these arrangements is significant. The cost is relatively low. We should note, for some institutions, the internal process for forming articulation agreements has been streamlined and can be completed quickly and efficiently turning this red dot to yellow or even green in terms of level of flexibility.

12. Pathway programs – the providers here are often putting forward seductive arrangements that cost the institution almost nothing and show only an upside. The contracts are often long-term (10 to 30 years - see comments under #9 above!). As a pathway provider wins a new university contract, existing contract holders often complain of getting less and less attention as the new pathway partner institution draws the provider’s resources. Low cost and often very difficult to modify depending on the contract. Buyer beware and be sure to negotiate to your advantage at the outset.

Where to Next?

I’ve been reading about resistance to change lately. We’ve all seen it. We’ve all done it. We kinda like things to stay familiar.

Yet, there are times when change is forced upon us. In the CIEE Summit presentation Brad and I did last year, we shared data about just how volatile and unpredictable internationalization efforts have been over the last few decades. We all have some recent experience with that ; -)

Nevertheless, there are times when we (the global we) are the instigators of change. We are the ones presenting the new ideas to leadership and making change happen. We are then tasked with convincing others, who are resistant to change, to adopt something new because it is better for one reason or another.

This blog and our discussions at conferences are how we discover new ideas, develop plans, and figure out how to present the options to our colleagues. This is how we build consensus and forward motion.

Be in touch if you would like to meet us in person at the AIRC Conference. Or simply hit us up here to set up a virtual meeting.

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