May 31, 2022, by Don Hossler – Setting a Context for Recruiting International Graduate Students

There is a dearth of research on the factors that influence international graduate students to select the graduate program in which s/he will enroll. For decades, my advice to enrollment managers has been to look at the research on what influences the enrollment decisions of high ability domestic undergraduates and assume that many of the same factors will be at play. Keep in mind that for these prospective students the decision to enroll out of home country is a risky decision. It is risky because many of these students will have never lived out of their home countries. Students from more affluent families may have traveled abroad, but many  prospective students will not have done so. They are unaccustomed to the cultural norms in other countries.

Recruiting international graduate students involve different considerations. For example, international students seeking master’s degrees in applied areas such as MBAs, and students looking at Ph.D. programs in STEM fields will have different concerns. Prospective students may have never studied in a setting where the language of the host country was the only language spoken. If a student is from some regions of Africa, Asia, or South America it is possible that the teaching style to which they have been exposed is didactic. But if the student is looking at studying in Western Europe, Canada, the United States the instructional style will be more dialectic, with give and take between students and faculty. All of these factors should be considered when universities/specific graduate programs craft recruitment strategies.

Female students from Europe or North America, may be reluctant to consider graduate programs in the Middle East or parts of Asia because the roles of women, both inside and outside of the classroom is more constrained. Women from more religiously conservative Islamic countries may not be allowed to travel outside of home country without a male chaperone (Muharem). When graduate programs are considering the applications from students who have not grown-up in western industrialized countries consideration should be given to the fact that GRE score may not accurately reflect the abilities of prospective students. It should be clear by this point those institutions who seek to recruit graduate students from across the globe need to do their homework to be culturally sensitive.

The Importance of Program Quality

For graduate programs that seek to attract the best students from around the globe there are some universal truths.

  1. One of the differences between graduate and undergraduate programs is that students are likely to have courses taught by some of the leading scholars in the field. Graduate programs need to capitalize on this when attempting to recruit international students.
  2. The ranking of a graduate program is of great import. The further a graduate program is removed from being ranked among the best programs in the world, the more difficult it becomes to attract top graduate students.
  3. The reputation of individual faculty members also matters. In top ranked MBA programs, or in a STEM field for example, there may be a single professor that is regarded to be amongst the best researchers in the world in his or her field.
  4. For prospective graduate students looking only at elite programs, it is important that they have a chance to interact with faculty members by phone, video conferencing, email, and visits to campus prior to enrollment. There is always the risk that a  world-renowned professors will treat students like they are lucky to be talking to him/her – which is a mistake. Returning to a theme from my last essay on recruiting international undergraduates, graduate programs should court these top students, they will have other choices. Do not treat them like you are their only choice.
  5. Another important consideration for prospective students is the opportunity to participate in internships or to serve as research assistants (and later in post-doc fellowships). For more applied master’s degree programs, the opportunity to be part of consulting efforts can be a consideration. Finally, the longer the time period allowed for time spent in internships or in post-graduate fellowships – the better.
  6. In addition, cost matters. Prospective doctoral students in STEM fields will assume that they will get a research assistantship that will cover all, or most, costs. Most master’s degree programs do not include assistantships, thus tuition and fees, along with the availability of financial aid will influence their decisions.

In addition to the factors above, there are other considerations for prospective students. In fields and programs, where students hope to become pre-eminent researchers there is often a preference that instruction be in English. There are practical reasons for this preference. For prospective doctoral students, the majority of the top journals in STEM fields are published in English. Often conference papers are presented in English. In the case of business, both spoken and written English is the lingua franca of international business.

While less important, there are other considerations for prospective students. The permeability of the country culture in which the institution has been admitted can also be a consideration. Can students easily connect with other students and the wider community? Personal safety is also a factor. For example, this is often a concern about studying in the United States. In addition, any recent perceived mistreatment of international students quickly spreads across the globe. The visa process put into place by the Trump administration or China’s decision to expel all international students during the pandemic are examples of government policies that can influence the decisions of future graduate students.

Many  international students are admitted and enroll in less prestigious graduate programs so high rankings are not always a key factor. Some students coming from Third World Countries may hope to immigrate to the country in which they choose to study. Thus, the probabilities of legal immigration can matter. Proximity to extended family and of course the probability of being admitted can be a factor.

What Should Graduate Programs Do?

            Graduate programs that seek to enroll international students need to organize themselves to do this effectively. Unlike efforts to enroll undergraduates, where the image of an entire university plays a major role in matriculation decisions, the prestige and structure of an individual graduate program is what matters. The faculty of the program, with the support of the academic unit in which the program is housed, need to be clear eyed about the program’s strength and weaknesses. In addition, graduate programs need  to collect information on all of the students who applied, which ones were admitted, and where they enrolled. The use of data is critical especially for programs that are seeking to move higher in rankings schemes.

            Successful efforts require more organizational structure and focus than is often found at the program level. Any fellowships and scholarships need to be used in a strategic and coordinated manner. Programs need to develop communication strategies and targeted web pages –  this is necessary regardless of how highly ranked a graduate program may be. Both the communication streams and the website need to be customized to reflect the unique interests of international students. The concerns of prospective international doctoral students in Education are different from those of potential master’s students in Bioinformatics, or potential Ph.D., students in Materials Science.

            For universities and for graduate programs that seek to enroll more international graduate students there are a host of factors that influence students’ enrollment decisions. Program leaders need to be thoughtful and strategic in order to achieve their goals. Less prestigious programs may need to consider using recruiting agents, similar to undergraduate recruitment. It is likely to be necessary to assign many of these tasks to a professional staff position who has the time and expertise to create a highly integrated recruitment, admissions, and scholarship function.


Donald Hossler a member of the Edu Alliance Group Advisory Council is an emeritus professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Indiana University Bloomington (IUB). He currently serves as a Senior Scholar at the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice in the Rossier School of Education, at the University of Southern California. Hossler has also served as vice chancellor for student enrollment services, executive associate dean of the School of Education, and the executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Hossler’s areas of specialization include college choice, student persistence, student financial aid policy, and enrollment management. Hossler has received career achievement awards for his research, scholarship, and service from the American College Personnel Association, the Association for Institutional Research, the College Board, and the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators. He recently received the Sonneborn Award for Outstanding Research and Teaching from IUB and was named a Provost Professor.


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