How to Market to International College Students at a US College

How to Market to International Students Studying at a US College - Go Commando App

How much has international student enrollment in U.S. colleges increased lately? Enough to warrant the headlines such as “U. of I. reaches out to 600 freshmen from China” and “The University of China at Illinois” popping up in the mainstream media.

Think about it. It was only the mid-50’s, when international student enrollment was reaching a high of 35,000 students. It’s wild how far those enrollment numbers have come.

  • Over 800,000 students choose education in the United States each year
  • Nearly 4% of all students enrolled in post-secondary education in the United States are internationally-born
  • During the 2011-2012 academic year, about 760,000 international students (plus their dependents) contributed $22 billion in tuition and living expense in the U.S.
  • International students contributed $24 billion to the U.S. economy during the 2012-2013 school year (12% up from the previous year)

[Statistics from “Study in the USA” by International Student, and the “Economic Benefits of International Students” by the Association of International Educators]

With numbers of individuals going up, and the number of cultural groups on campus expanding, it makes sense for brand marketers to consider and collaborate on the ways brands should be marketing to this growing number of consumers. They may not be born-and-bred Americans, but they certainly have purchasing power here. So, what should marketers be doing to entice them?

Show them your perks

American universities and colleges are constantly concerned with appealing to new students overseas, so they build their marketing around all of the perks and amenities that come with enrollment. Learn from them.

What kinds of branded perks do international students enjoy?

Laptops, like at Wake Forest University’s ThinkPad Program, brands could gives students a new laptop, the hottest mobile device, access to pricey software applications, or a free subscription to cloud-based tools.

Gourmet dining, like High Point University’s steakhouse, 1924 Prime, or Kenyon College’s Farm to Fork Program, brands can appeal to students through their stomachs with vouchers for popular or otherwise pricey dining venue.

Plush facilities, like Boston University‘s Student Village, brands could sponsor such things as media lounges, or music practice spaces.

Extraordinary recreation opportunities, like the Outdoor Adventure Program at Michigan Technological University, which takes students on adventure trips and also sponsors its own 112-acre ski hill, Mont Ripley.

Funding avenues (probably the most enticing perk), like $6 million allotted by the University of Pennsylvania for undergraduates from outside of the US, Canada and Mexico. Brands can offer partial scholarships through contests, like the Dr. Pepper Tuition Giveaway for up to $100,000.

Get acquainted with their resources

International students are using all of the tools at their disposal, though mostly online, to investigate the U.S. schools they are interested in, from the inside out. No longer are they using school pamphlets to weigh up the pros and cons of each school. They are visiting websites like (over 6,000 visitors per day), (over 21,000 visitors per day), and International Student Voice Magazine (over 21,000 visitors per day) to get the real deal on studying in the U.S., and what life will be like at their chosen school. That’s not all, however, because social media helps international students to get an insider’s look at what student life is like, in real time.

Marketers, gather your keywords and hashtags and start researching some of the relevant streams associated with the school or location you are targeting. Just remember that international students may be using the apps and social media platforms that are popular in their country of origin, so don’t discount some of the inspiration that can be found through internationally popular platforms like QQ, WeChat, QZone, Baidu Tieba, or Viber.

Appeal to them, culturally

Speak the language of the international students you’re trying to reach and you will gain their trust in no time. We don’t necessarily mean becoming fluent in another tongue, although that should be a prerequisite if say your job is to target a single international market whose predominant language is not English.

Create, instead, on- or off-campus culture events where you can reach the students in this group. Last year, Bergdorf Goodman, a luxury department store in New York, sponsored the Chinese New Year celebrations at Columbia and New York University. The same store later held a seminar, where an executive representative from the high-end brand Neiman Marcus spoke about fashion trends, career opportunities and the store’s exclusive products. The setting was none other than the Bergdorf’s shoe salon so students could browse in private, post-seminar.

The old, spam-like “campus ambassador” model may be broken but that just means making a shift to a model that fits what today’s international college students are looking for: fun, involvement, a tech component, and a social one. If you can speak THAT language, then you can keep the attention of just about any international student on any campus in the United States.

Next Steps

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