Perhaps it was the Saudi and Brazil bump that put your institution in good shape a few years back, with international students flowing in. But, you aren't impervious to changes in the market. Like many institutions, you may now find yourself looking around thinking things seem a bit less rosy.
We are continuously approached by universities and boarding high schools from around the world seeking international student recruiting advice. They are all at different stages of maturity in terms of their enrollment and admissions processes and we enjoy the challenge of figuring out how to resolve the unique problems each of these institutions face.
More often than not, institutions are hung up on the common challenges of people and budget. This is true of most service industries (and, in fact, product driven industries as well). There is no lack of ideas and opportunities. The only thing holding them back is the difficulty of aligning the team (people) and willingness to risk the funds (because there are no guarantees of success).
Often (more often than we all care to admit) we are approached by academic leaders who are desperate. It is late in the enrollment cycle and enrollment numbers are not where they should be. They were once successful and numbers were solid, and now they are not. Budget dollars are extremely tight. And yet, growth is demanded. What to do?
This is the first of a two part series in which we are discussing the all too common mistakes of the desperate. Those who have been in the industry for a number of years have seen this state of affairs at different times: the pressure to produce without the time and resources to do it right. And looking back at those times, we all know what the result was: ineffective and disappointing.
To do marketing effectively, you need experience, creativity, consistent project management (execution) and tracking (analytics). All of that takes time and money. When done well, you are in the strongest position to see results. When done hastily, without solid investment and for short, inconsistent bursts, there really is little opportunity for success.
This is why we do what we do here. We try very hard to keep institutions on the right path. Sustained growth is rare and difficult to achieve. Lean years happen. Our market research and creative agency services keep offer the industry intelligence you need to achieve growth and survive those years. These services do require a level of investment. Intead Plus is a great place to start, with full access to all of our research, planning worksheets, and state of the field webinars.
Read on for our first set of common mistakes academic leaders make when desperately trying to improve student enrollment numbers.
1. Throw up Your Hands
It is not uncommon for institutional leadership to cut and run when enrollment numbers dip in any given area (non-traditional students, international students, particular geographic regions, demographic segments). A hard look at the numbers tells a story that no longer appears to have potential. And so, the funding for a particular marketing initiative or program area is reduced or cut entirely.
The question: Does that “hard look at the numbers” represent a clear-eyed review of what truly caused the decline, what the market potential in that area is now and what it is likely to be in the future?
The mistake: Knee-jerk reaction to limited data causing a lack of perspective on the people, processes, and market conditions that are the true cause of the challenging situation. Typically, the unfortunate move is to save staff by cutting the recruitment budget.
The result: Enrollment continues its decline as staff try to “do more with less.” It really doesn’t work.
Best practice: Long-term strategy must anticipate lean years and budget accordingly. Academic leaders consider the people, processes and market conditions using data to inform decision making.
2. Reconfigure the Department
Sounds like a good idea. The numbers are down so an injection of funds to change the office environment and raise awareness of the enrollment and admissions functions on campus. Kind of like a fresh coat of paint to brighten up the place.
The question: How will this focus on the internal environment (a “fresh coat of paint”) alter the external results? Again with the processes and people, is this reconfiguration focused on changing the internal dynamic in such a way that the people will actually be able to perform better and deliver stronger results?
The mistake: Investing in internal changes that do not have a direct impact on improving results.
The result: A flurry of activity around internal funds that were available from a “different budget” (office improvement funds) and enrollment numbers that continue to decline.
Best practice: Get the authority to re-allocate those alternative budget dollars to fund actions that have a direct impact on recruiting results. Put the money where it will do the most good. Don’t take no for an answer.
3. Invest in a Pathway Program as a Quick Fix
Pathway programs are increasingly turned to as the quick fix to international student recruiting problems. These tie ups often fail within two to three years as both parties cannot agree on why the numbers are not improving as expected (and promised). See our recent blog post on this topic here.
The question: Are you lured by increased marketing exposure without the upfront costs and not looking more closely at the long-term ramifications? Are you giving up too much control to a third party that is not truly aligned with your mission and goals?
The mistake: Of course they will say they are aligned with you, but your institution has a particular culture and you’ll want to be sure that they are adopting yours rather than you adopting theirs. Diving down this path without seriously considering the long-term impact (10 to 30 year contracts!) will tie the hands of your future colleagues in ways that will likely hamper their ability to succeed.
The result: Enrollment growth that is always just beyond your reach and not quite as good as everyone projected on that terrific excel chart that was passed around before the pathway contract was signed.
Best practice: Your decision to contract with a pathway provider will affect your institution’s ability to succeed and maneuver for many years to come. Be sure your pathway contract offers your institution the flexibility it needs to adapt to inevitable market changes and opportunities that will emerge.
Strongly consider investing in yourself rather than a pathway. Nothing gives you more control and flexibility to adapt to market changes and take advantage of new opportunities better than building your own foundation program. If a pathway provider can give you that level of flexibility, they are the kind of partner you want.
It will take longer than you thought to succeed with this initiative regardless of which path you choose. Consider that most third-party pathway programs will sign new contracts each year and their attention will naturally go to the newer and more highly ranked institutions they serve. Evaluate the pathway program’s current client base and their anticipated new clients and examine how you will fit into the mix over time.
Part 2: Next Week
Stay tuned! Next week we will be diving into more of the most common mistakes we witness, and providing perspective on how to avoid them.