The COVID-19 pandemic has forced colleges and universities to rethink international recruitment in a way that no institution has ever done during SARS in 2002, Swine Flu in 2009, and Ebola Virus in 2014. None of the previous health crises has significantly impacted international student mobility the same way that COVID-19 has.
In the same manner that the students are now locked out of their study destinations, recruitment travels to source markets have also ground to a halt. Then came the surge in digital media spend beyond the education industry. The hunt is on for the best digital platforms and innovations that will deliver more efficiencies to international recruitment, and provide personalization that transcends borders.
WhatsApp, in October 2018, registered the world’s highest number of users, with around 200 million more users than Facebook Messenger1 and an estimated 2 billion users around theworld2 in March 2020. India is its biggest market with 340 million users, followed by Brazil at 99 million, the U.S. at 86.1 million, and Indonesia at 59.9 million users.3
According to Forrester Research,4 customers have shifted priorities from information to personalization. Responding to this need, universities have opened regional social media channels to reach their audiences. In China, WeChat is the most used social media platform with 79% of Chinese internet users reportedly using the platform in 2019. In a similar trend across messenger apps, WeChat usage is most common in the 18-35 age group.
Digital solutions have seen a massive adoption since the pandemic and chatbots have been rapidly deployed to support the work disruptions in customer service and sales centers around the world.
In the higher education space, artificial intelligence (AI) and chatbots have been helping colleges improve student retention rates by checking in with students to learn and discover personal issues that may affect persistence rates.
EdSights’s Wilhelm, a chatbot powered by AI, has helped Bethel University improve its retention rate by 4% in just a semester. Some of Wilhelm’s interventions at Bethel include:
· Identifying students who were worried about failing classes
· Locating students who admitted to not having a close group of friends on campus
· Finding homesick students5
EdSight co-CEO Carolina Recchi says, “The biggest challenge when it comes to retention is that it is not a homogenous problem; there is no one size fits all.”
With AI, colleges aim to provide personalized solutions that will improve as more data becomes available. Some colleges have even gone as far as naming their chatbots after their mascots to help elevate the experience.
Admithub, another company developing chatbots, crafts answers that are “fun but loving” as well as “informative and joyful”. These tailored responses can then be programmed by the colleges to reflect local knowledge and mimic their “voice”.6
Intead published a study that reports 57% of students find student ambassadors as the most helpful resource, while 47% say that their friends and families are the most helpful.7 The findings are based on a survey of international students from 40 universities in the U.S. and U.K., plus data drawn from actual peer-to-peer conversations.
Intead’s Digital Orientation and Unibuddy are two of the most common platforms in this arena. Unibuddy launched with just five universities in 2017 and now has an impressive roster of over 300 university partners in the U.S., Canada, Asia-Pacific, and Europe.
Unibuddy CEO and founder Diego Fanara himself experienced challenges as an international student from Switzerland. “Flying out to different institutions just wasn’t possible. I felt like there had to be a way to hear first-hand from a current student on what the university experience was really like”. From these challenges, Unibuddy was born.8
The British Columbia Law School used virtual reality (VR) in its lecture9 in 2014 and Iowa State University tapped VR to recruit talented athletes in 2017.10 VR is also used by platforms such as YouVisit to provide students with the opportunity to explore campus grounds and facilities of partner colleges and universities in the U.S.
According to ICEF, virtual reality campus tours gives students the ability to experience the college atmosphere from their home. Savannah College of Art and Design experienced a 26% jump in admissions 12 months after starting a program where accepted students have been able to explore the campus virtually through a Google Cardboard headset.
The international student marketplace is growing and recruitment approaches are continuously evolving, moving from traditional to digital. Digital student recruitment platforms are augmenting the limited resources that recruiters and admissions offices may have. Artificial intelligence is also one of the key features of these new digital recruitment platforms. It allows users of the platform to filter and recommend courses that meet the students’ eligibility and interest.
Scaling recruitment efforts has never been this convenient and the numerous choices make this arena an institution’s market. Not all platforms are made equal, however. Some platforms provide added services that yield better conversion and retention rates for institutions, while others do not. The trick is to know what to look for when you shop.