State of International Learning: An Interview with Suren Naidoo

Suren Naidoo is the CEO of Education for Advancement (EFA), a firm that specializes in helping students from other countries find the right school for them in the United States. EFA, which has helped more than 5,000 students gain a U.S. college education, is now a part of the Learning House team. Suren also has served on the boards of several universities, including United States University and Victory University. He sat down to talk to us about the future of international learning.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that international student enrollment at American universities had topped 1 million. How do you see the state of the international recruitment market? Where are we succeeding, and where can we improve?

The international mobility of students and the export of education as a service will continue to grow, driven by emerging middle-class populations. There are both push and pull factors at play here; students, not unlike other immigrants, are seeking education and economic opportunities abroad. Quite often, the education opportunities, especially at the graduate level, are simply not available locally. At the same time, there are countries that actively encourage student admissions since this is key to growing a skilled workforce and the economy in stagnant populations.

The election of Donald Trump as president has caused a lot of anxiety in this country surrounding immigration. How does that affect our international recruitment efforts?

The negativity of the campaign trail definitely caused significant anxiety amongst potential students. To some extent, any uncertainty in an election cycle has that effect. However, post-election, there seems to be an acknowledgement that President-elect Trump’s style of leadership and pro-business view may be very supportive of international students. Having just got back from a trip to India, the mood is very much “back to business.” Mr. Trump’s selection of Gov. Nikki Haley to be U.N. ambassador is very positive for our recruiting efforts.

Some schools and organizations might be trying to convince students that now isn’t a good time to study in the United States. How do we combat that perception?

There has never been a better time to study in the U.S., and we are not seeing any perception otherwise. The U.S. will continue to be the number 1 destination of choice for international students. However, there is significant global competition in terms of education choices, lower admission requirements and pricing that will affect the U.S. as a choice.

Where are our international students coming from these days, primarily? How has that changed over time?

The fastest-growing country of origin is India, which is expected to be the top provider of students to the U.S. by 2020. In general, any country with a growing middle class, and where English is a medium of instruction or a first language, will be a strong market. The mix of countries sending students to the U.S. is being affected by those countries’ awareness of the quality of U.S. higher education, and by historical destinations not being as favorable.

What advice would you give to colleges and universities in the U.S. looking to grow their international student recruitment market?

The biggest challenge for U.S. universities is understanding the complexities and investment required in recruiting a new type of international student that is not in the traditional top 1 percent of academic performance, but rather an average student with the financial means to study abroad. Marketing in countries that are predominantly agent-driven poses a huge management challenge in terms of handling volume and in terms of quality issues. My advice to universities would be to put the same thought and planning behind international recruiting as they would behind something like a new online initiative.

Why hasn’t exporting online degrees from U.S. regionally accredited institutions worked?

There are perception issues that prevent a straight export of a U.S. online degree from working well, often influenced by regulatory policy and affordability. Most U.S. universities underestimate the investment required to build the brand and simply do not understand pricing in a private (non Title IV) marketplace. The opportunity for education exports is open-ended if branding and pricing can be addressed.

Finally, what are your thoughts on the future of international student recruitment and learning? Where do you see things going in five years?

I expect the international student population in the U.S. to continue to grow, and wouldn’t be surprised if it approaches 1.5 million in the next five years. This would put it more in line with the U.K., Australia and Canada in terms of international student share. Online degrees offered by well-known brands will start to gain traction and meet the needs of underserved markets.

About Todd Zipper

Todd Zipper serves as the President and Chief Executive Officer at Learning House. He joined Learning House as Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer during the Weld North Holdings LLC acquisition in 2011. In his role, Todd oversees all operations and provides strategic management. Before joining Learning House, Todd co-founded and served as Chief Operating Officer for Education Connection. Todd can be reached at: tzipper@learninghouse.com

  • Scott Freehafer

    Working with International Students can be challenging at times, but it is rewarding. I teach in the undergraduate business and MBA programs at The University of Findlay in Findlay, Ohio and we have had a large population of international students over the years. Over the years, we have had a lot of students from India and lately from Nepal, but there is one thing about this population which is different than our domestic population – it seems to move in waves and it is hard to predict from one year to the next. Sometimes this is because or national or global economics, politics, international currency fluctuations against the US dollar, currency policy changes (recently India’s changes with respect to the 500 and 1000 Rupee notes have increased the level of uncertainty), and changes in the agents’ preferences, changes and uncertainty in the Visa process (some of the US consulates in India are more likely to grant Visas than others). But as I said, it is personally and professionally rewarding to work with International Student, so I hope that Suren’s prediction of a bright future are true.