Blog 🏛️ University 6th October 2023

How International Students' US Application Decisions Vary by Region

Profile image of Zahra Onsori
Zahra Onsori University Content Writer

The USA remains a popular destination with international school students in almost every region of the world, but look a little deeper and there is nuance which is crucial when universities come to plan their marketing and recruitment activity.

32,000 international students submitted over 250,000 applications to US universities through the BridgeU platform between 2019 and 2023. While these are impressive stats, our analysis of international students’ applications across 142 countries also suggests that US universities have varying degrees of success in persuading international students who express interest in the US to then submit an application. 

The country-level data highlights the importance of tailoring international enrolment strategies to specific markets.

While Asia experienced a general decrease in the percentage of students applying to US universities, Qatar, Pakistan, China, and Malaysia emerged as key growth markets. This underscores the need for U.S. institutions to prioritise these countries in their international recruitment plans.

In Africa; Ghana, Sudan, Malawi, and Uganda saw the largest increase in applications, while Austria, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Switzerland, and Macedonia led the charge in Europe. 

So what’s driving international students’ US application decisions in different regions of the world? 

We spoke to international school counsellors and our team of Customer Success Managers, who work with our international schools all around the world, to find out. 

To learn more about how investing in international schools can help you build a smarter, more targeted undergraduate enrolment strategy, download our latest ebook. 

The Middle East 

An analysis of the international schools market across the Middle East offers some valuable insights as to how universities can and should build a targeted recruitment strategy in the region. 

For expatriate and local families living in the region, international schools are often seen as a gateway to a wider range of global higher education pathways and scholarship opportunities. 

But it’s not just the proliferation of international schools that is making the Middle East a hotspot for international student mobility. The Middle East has also borne witness to an sharp increase in the number of satellite and international branch campuses. 

These international branch campuses are themselves competing with local competitors across the Middle East. Higher ed institutions in established destination countries should be prepared to fiercely compete for international student talent in the coming years. 

The UAE & Qatar are big local competitors for the US

One of the fastest growing education markets in the Middle East is the UAE. 

The UAE’s location has made it a hub of economic growth and global commerce. It’s not hard to see why so many international universities, such as Murdoch University in Australia and Birmingham University in the UK, are choosing to make the UAE the home of their branch campuses. 

The Qatar Foundation’s investment in the region has also attracted US based institutions such as Northwestern and Georgetown. 

But these international branch campuses are themselves competing with local competitors across the Middle East. 

Higher ed institutions  in established destination countries such as the USA should be prepared to fiercely compete for international student talent in the coming years. 

What do we mean by ‘compete’? Here are just a few examples. 

Improving brand awareness

Our analysis highlights the extent to which universities with an established reputation, or even universities from a particular country, will have better brand awareness than others. 

So why does a particular universities’ brand resonate in a particular region? And how can you adjust your marketing strategies to compensate?

Building relationships 

Is your recruitment operation drawing strength from a range of different collaborations and relationships? For instance, is your market intelligence informed by the insights of agents and international school counsellors? 

And the most important question: are you building relationships that will help to shape your market intelligence and build brand awareness in the long-term? 

Students are drawn to city-based, coastal universities in Western countries

Historically, the most popular universities for BridgeU international school students in the Middle East are indicative of applicants’ preferences towards city-based universities with a recognised brand name.  

For example, some of the most popular universities for international students who applied to the US in 2022 included

  • New York University (shortlisted by 20% of prospective BridgeU 2022/23 applicants)
  • Boston University (shortlisted by 13% of prospective BridgeU applicants). 
  • Cornell University (shortlisted by 10% of BridgeU students)
  • University of Southern California (shortlisted by 11% of BridgeU students) 

Because international students across the Middle East are more likely to be expats (so-called ‘third culture kids’, they are often more drawn to higher ed institutions in larger, cosmopolitan, coastal cities. But it’s worth bearing in mind this is increasingly true of students native to the Middle East too! 

Our Customer Success Manager for the region, Umama Ahmed, noted that students’ preferences towards city based universities can often be attributed to the fact that international students in the Middle East are accustomed to life in a 24 hour city like Riyadh or Doha. 

Strategy tip: This poses a challenge for those U.S. institutions that aren’t based in bustling cities.

What student experience can you offer that is unique to you? How can you showcase other unique attributes, whether it’s your campus community or the employability outcomes of your flagship majors?

Expat international students are often attracted by routes to permanent residency

As we touched upon in the previous section, international students in the Middle East are more likely to be expat students. To take one example, 89% of the population of the UAE are expats. 

These expat students are more likely to be drawn back to those home countries where they already have citizenship. In other cases, students in the Middle East are drawn to destination countries where there is a path to permanent citizenship at the end of their undergraduate studies. 

Strategy tip: Once again, it’s important for US universities to evidence outcomes here. What are the post-graduate employment outcomes that students can expect? What does a path to citizenship look like for your international applicants? 

This is where testimonials and success stories from international students come in. What does the future look like for prospective applicants who are thinking of enrolling at your institution? 

The Middle East has now become reaccustomed to in-person events

Middle Eastern countries were some of the first to emerge from lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning that students in this area were more likely to become re-accustomed to in-person events. 

This means that students in this area are more likely to respond to recruitment activities where they can have meaningful, face to face interactions with a university rep. 

Strategy tip: Our experience working with universities has taught us that it can be beneficial to organise tailored events for multiple international schools at the same time.

For example, BridgeU will soon be running a dedicated event in Dubai, where university reps will get the chance to meet with counsellors and students from schools in the region. 

The Americas

Wherever you look, the stats point to North and South America becoming a growing international recruitment market. 

In the last three years, the proportion of BridgeU international schools located in the Americas as grown from 9% to 17%, pointing to this region becoming a growing source of undergraduate talent. 

Our analysis of BridgeU international students’ university application preferences suggests that both the US and Canada remain popular destination countries for students in the Americas. 

Specifically, nearly three-quarters of international students based in the Americas have expressed an interest in a US university in the past two application cycles, making the USA overwhelmingly the most popular destination for international students in this region. 

So what are some of the factors driving international students’ decision making that US universities need to be aware of? 

The flexibility and visibility of visiting universities

There’s been a lot of discussions (rightly) over whether international students and international schools want universities to return to in-person visits, or to continue with hybrid approaches to recruitment that continue to accommodate the virtual. 

But across the Americas, international schools that the medium is not as important as the content universities are delivering to international schools. 

It’s often the case that international school counsellors and teachers are less familiar with the different application systems in other destination countries, and will need help in guiding their students to make the most informed choice about their futures. 

Add to this the fact that many international school counsellors are extremely busy, and must often manage a careers guidance/college counselling curriculum with very limited resources. 

The need that school staff and students in this region have is often a basic one – they need visibility and flexibility from visiting universities. For example, the question of whether an international school can accommodate a visit from a university will often come down to the school’s timetable, and how busy the school counsellor is. 

While this might seem like a rather obvious consideration, it demonstrates the importance of international recruitment reps adopting a hyper-targeted, localised recruitment strategy where possible. 

In a post-COVID world, a student’s perception of a university will depend not on the medium or form in which an admissions rep chooses to reach out, but on the perceived value of the content that a university is offering an international school. 

New degree programmes are becoming popular

In working with international school students in the region, our Customer Success team tell us that students are increasingly interested in liberal arts and social-justice-related programmes, which are often perceived as offering a greater degree of variety and opportunity.  

In the context of the USA, liberal arts courses and pathways are increasingly attractive to international students due to the perception that these programmes are not offered to the same degree in their home countries. 

Business and business management courses are also becoming more popular for international students we work with across the Americas, as they are perceived to offer valuable commercial skills that students can then bring back to their home countries. 

Financial planning is key for parents in the region

Like other international student recruitment markets around the world, parents play an important role in international students’ decision-making. 

It’s increasingly the case that parents in this region need to factor the cost of an overseas education into their family planning/household budget much earlier in their child’s university research process. 

It’s important that universities start a dialogue with international school counsellors, students and parents as early as possible, so that families in these regions are able to make more informed decisions about how to financially plan for their child’s future. 

Europe & Africa: a tale of two continents

Our recent analysis of international school students’ US application preferences over the past five years suggests that the USA’s popularity has grown by 11% amongst European students. In 2019, 22% of international students expressed interest in a US higher education; by 2023 this had risen to 33%. 

Likewise, the USA continues to compete fiercely with the UK across Africa. For example, in the 2023 application cycle, 53% of students at schools across Africa expressed an interest in a US higher education in the BridgeU platform, compared to 49% of students expressing interest in the UK. 

In both markets, the USA has an opportunity to continue to grow its undergraduate enrolments. 

In-person meetings are back – but be aware of regional need

In speaking to our counsellors at international schools throughout Europe and Africa, we found that a preference for in-person meetings is once again the norm. 

However, this isn’t a cast-iron rule across both continents. For example, we have been told by counsellors in some parts of Africa that they welcomed the opportunity to have more digital interactions with universities during COVID-19. 

These schools hadn’t previously been under the traditional flightpath of a visiting international recruitment rep, so COVID-19 was an opportunity for some counsellors to use virtual methods to build out their network of contacts. 

It’s important to bear this in mind as you plan your own recruitment activities, our Customer Success teams tell us that universities are more likely to visit West African countries, where the school counselling network is bigger, as opposed to some countries in East Africa where we find schools are eager to be introduced to more universities. 

School locality will play a defining role in a students’ university preferences

It’s important to remember how a school’s locality, culture and curriculum can shape an international student’s higher education preferences. 

For example, we find that in North and West African countries, there is still a perception that the USA and the UK are still perceived to offer the most prestigious higher education experience by students and parents alike. 

By contrast, in Southern Africa, our Customer Success teams tell us that students are increasingly considering local challenger destinations, such as South Africa. In this part of the continent there is more of a desire on the part of students to stay closer to home. 

In Europe, we hear similar stories of international school students wanting to stay closer to home, which helps to explain why we see destinations such as the Netherlands and Spain becoming more popular. 

Curriculum also plays a role here. As we explained in the previous section, it’s common for students across Europe and Africa to be enrolled at schools that offer multiple curricula. 

The level of specialisation a student has experienced at school will in turn affect their degree choices. For example, the A-level is more aligned to the specialisation of the UK four-year degree programme than the IB. 

So consider how a student’s level of specialisation may (or may not) prepare them for studying at your institution. Are there ways you can adapt your outreach to meet their needs? 

Students are increasingly concerned about diversity & social justice

Gen Z international students are factoring cultural and social diversity into their decision-making. Universities should expect international applicants in Europe and Africa to scrutinise them more closely when it comes to their stance on cultural sensitivity and social justice. 

Students want to feel safe in the decision that they’re making. Will they feel affirmed and recognised on campus? What support will they receive from their peers, from faculty and from international student offices on campus? 

At a time when we find international students across Europe and Africa applying to a wider range of destination countries, this poses another challenge for US universities in terms of their ability to carve out a unique brand identity. 

Students will no longer choose you for your academic profile: they will expect institutions to align with their values as well. 

Staying competitive in Asia Pacific

The USA remains a popular destination for international students across Asia, with around 60% of prospective applicants expressing interest in the USA between 2019 and 2023. 

The U.S.A. also continues to remain popular in a range of source markets across Asia, including China, where 71% of BridgeU students expressed interest in the USA as a study destination, South Korea (86%) and Taiwan (69%). 

So what’s driving the U.S. application decisions of international school students in Asia?

Geopolitical considerations are still a factor

Rising geopolitical tensions between the U.S. and China and the tenure of Donald Trump as President of the United States continue to play a role in some international students’ decision-making, meaning it’s never been more important for universities to diversify their international student recruitment outside of key markets such as China and India. 

Parent power can’t be underestimated

It’s vital that universities remember that, in many countries across Asia, they’re marketing to parents as much as students

The role of parents in their students’ decision-making has never been more significant and indeed the geopolitical tensions we mentioned in the previous section also have the secondary side-effect of causing some parents in Asian countries to worry about their child’s safety when studying on a university campus in a Western country. 

Recent safety concerns arising from the COVID-19 pandemic has also meant that some parents are understandably worried about sending their son or daughter to study in a country that may be multiple time zones away. 

It’s also important to note that parents also require resources and clear communications from universities in order to better understand their child’s higher education options. 

Some parents have some pre-conceptions about the career paths and salary expectations offered by certain degree courses (e.g. thinking their son/daughter will have a more lucrative career studying Medicine or Law, as opposed to taking a liberal arts-based degree. 

The rise of challenger destinations and institutions 

Increasingly, countries such as South Korea and Japan are emerging as competitors to the more established destinations, with more English-taught courses now being offered by top-ranked universities. 

However, these new challenger destinations also offer valuable insights into where the competition for international student talent will be most fierce. For example, while South Korea’s application process is broadly perceived to be more straightforward, a number of our counsellors tell us they find the Japanese application system quite complex. 

This poses a challenge to universities looking to build a localised recruitment strategy in the Asia Pacific region. Are you making your admissions process as transparent and straightforward as possible for international applicants? 

The next steps

To learn more about how investing in international schools can help you to diversify and localise your undergraduate enrolment, download our latest white paper.