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Exploring Overseas Higher Ed Enrollment Opportunities

As higher ed institutions seek new markets to offset shrinking populations of traditional students, some have opted to partner with overseas colleges and universities. We talked with William Carroll, president of Hunter Global Education, LLC, to learn more about what’s needed to forge this type of partnership.

Carroll has spent nearly two decades building and nurturing partnerships between American and Asian higher ed institutions. He first ventured into this realm while president of Benedictine University, a role he held for 20 years. During his tenure, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that Benedictine was the “fastest-growing private nonprofit university in the country” from 2002 through 2012.

Carroll left the university with “class sites in China, Vietnam, Arizona and throughout Illinois...and nearly 10,000 students worldwide,” according to the Benedictine University Newsroom.

In his current role at Hunter Global Education, Carroll continues to serve as a “bridge” between American and Asian institutions and is a champion of distance learning. He took some time to answer a few questions about working with higher ed opportunities from overseas, and we’ve got his answers here:

How did you get started in working with international education partnerships?

I knew nothing about it. I just took a leap. But, I knew that demographic changes were going to impact higher ed enrollment. I thought there might be opportunity with international students. I also knew that the landscape of international education was changing, and I wanted Benedictine to be part of that change. I firmly believed (and still do) that no institution can be good at every country. I wanted to focus on one country and get deeply involved such that Benedictine would be known for its expertise and relationships in that country. For some inexplicable reason, I chose China.

As I built relationships, doors opened. There was a hunger for access to American colleges and universities there. Within three years of [Benedictine] going to China, Vietnamese institutions wanted similar relationships with Benedictine.

What are some of the countries that are working with American institutions?

There is worldwide interest in participating in the American education system. American higher ed is still known as being best-in-class for all types of programs. My focus is primarily in Asia, and I especially see interest among students and institutions in China, Vietnam, Japan, India, and South Korea.

So, the students are primarily native residents of China, or other Asian countries?

Correct. While there may be some American students living abroad enrolled in courses like this, for the most part the students are native to the host country. Our student population in Asia runs the gamut of student ages – from traditional-aged students to adult students. The evolving online market in Asia will only increase the number of students desiring an American education experience.

What types of degree levels are these students interested in?

Really, all types. There is interest in all levels, including certificates, associate degrees, bachelor’s, bachelor’s/master’s combined programs, graduate programs, and short-term workshops (on multiple topics).  

And program types?

For a while, MBAs were in high demand, but the governments of these host countries now say their markets have been saturated with international MBA programs. What’s attracting enrollment now are degrees in nursing, education, public health, human resource management, engineering, and cyber security. All areas of business are still attractive.

How are these programs administered?

There are a number of approaches American colleges can take. They may partner with an Asian institution, for example, such that the Asian student may take part of his/her course work at the home Asian institution, then come to the U.S. for a residential program on the American college’s campus to complete the degree. In other situations, an American college may choose to offer a full program on the ground in Asia. As mentioned earlier, distance/online learning is also gaining traction. The online format will only grow in popularity in the coming years. As was the case in the U.S., it will take some time for potential students to get used to the idea of online education and realize its credibility.

What about language barriers?

Any student who enrolls in programs like these is subject to the American institution’s Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) requirement or other English certification modalities.

Actually, when I work on partnerships between American and overseas institutions, I spend a lot of time on cultural differences. For instance, there can be a huge miss if American instructors expect Chinese students to ask questions in class. That goes against deeply held beliefs in China regarding how one shows respect for an instructor. So, in order to prepare both sides for success, I try to ensure that cultural differences are called out early so that both the instructors and students are prepared.

What are some of the other ways American institutions must prepare in order to successfully partner with an overseas counterpart?

Interestingly, it’s not so much that pedagogical differences get in the way. American colleges must understand that it’s the government of the overseas country that has the power to approve a higher ed program – just as the regional accrediting agencies have oversight of U.S. institutions. An American college may need to add certain aspects to a program in order to meet the partner country’s requirements. Moreover, the partner countries may mandate the types of programs and majors in which they are interested and [that they] will approve.

As Asia begins to move toward online learning, American institutions must have the robust tech services needed for distance learning – if they are to be successful. An institution cannot jump into the distance-learning market without the required infrastructure in place to support that activity.

As distance learning becomes pervasive, most stakeholders will need to understand that the quality of a program depends less on its modality, more on its instructional design. Whereas [at the start] faculty balked at the idea of transferring their courses to online modes, the industry has evolved enough now so that best practices have emerged.

In order to create a good experience for both faculty and students, I would say that a strong relationship between faculty and instructional designers helps. Faculty input is critical to good course design, and so is input from instructional designers. The two must be combined in order to provide an optimal experience for the learner.

Finally, no institution should be relying on old programs. It’s really important to keep programming fresh. American institutions cannot go to Asia and foist their tried and true programs on the Asian market. Knowledge of these markets is a prerequisite for success. 

What kind of numbers are we talking about when it comes to overseas student interest in American programs?

Well, there are over 350,000 Chinese students in the U.S. now. Vietnam and India are increasing their export of students to the U.S. in dramatic ways. The number of students arriving from Asia and attending U.S. institutions will continue to rise. For example, the Vietnamese economy is growing. The country needs educated workers in order to keep up; there is growing support for American institutions there right now.

How long does it take for an American institution to forge a partnership with an overseas counterpart?

One of the keys to success in Asia is developing relationships; Asia runs on relationships.  Having almost twenty years in Asia, I enable the institutions with which I work to take advantage of my existing and long-term relationships. I encourage institutions to set as their goal the establishment of long-term, income-producing pipeline programs with Asian institutions. These programs can take the form of 2+2, 3+1, 3+2, 4+0, etc. (the first number is the amount of time the student spends at the Asian partner, the second is the time spent with the American institution.)

Working with Asian university partners requires little in upfront costs. In my experience, the Asian partner institutions will share their facilities and expertise in many areas with their American partner. 

While these pipeline programs require time to put in place, and for students to matriculate through the initial years in their home country, there is a wonderful opportunity to recruit these “pipeline” students in their freshman and sophomore years – prior to their scheduled move to the U.S. partner. Once established, these partner programs can produce students for years.  (For example, Benedictine has been garnering students through the same partners for over fifteen years.)

Programs offered at a distance from the U.S. institution’s main campus need to first establish a robust tech infrastructure and support. When a U.S. institution partners with an Asian institution, asynchronous learning takes on a real significance. Student and faculty demand for service is 24/7, simply based on the time difference between countries. Clearly, these joint programs require more than just partners agreeing to work together, they require robust tech capability and support. The more the Asian student feels a part of the American campus, the more likely that student will want to be immersed in the U.S. institution.

What is the number one thing an American institution should keep in mind regarding international partnerships?

Well, we’ve talked about faculty and culture and tech services, but if there is one thing that it all boils down to, I’d say it’s relationships. I regularly talk to presidents who say that they have signed MOUs [Memoranda of Understanding] with Asian institutions and partners. An MOU, from the Asian perspective, is simply an agreement to continue the conversation at some point.  Many institutions can paper their walls with signed MOUs but have never established real income-producing programs. When the MOU has been signed, then the relationship must take over to move the MOU from vision to reality.

There needs to be mutual respect between the American institution and the overseas counterpart. Faculty must be prepared to work side-by-side with the other institution’s faculty. Once these relationships build and trust has been earned, I’ve seen some really great things happen. One of our favorite things at Benedictine was when the student debate team, made up of both Benedictine and Xian University students, entered the United Nations Model Debate as a unified team. This unique and exciting pairing of diverse institutions may well be a glimpse into an exciting and harmonious future.

A long-term investment that could build a pipeline

The new world of international education requires every aspect of our institutions to work together. New program ideas, new partnering models and new delivery systems will require a high level of technological infrastructure and capability. To enter this new world without the appropriate tech systems is like entering the ocean in a small boat. As promised since its inception, technology will be the bridge and highway to the future. According to a 2011 article in the New York Times, around 80 American higher ed institutions were already offering courses overseas throughout Europe, Asia and Central America. In the years to come, the number of institutions actively pursuing international partnerships and programs is expected to increase dramatically. Is your institution ready?

About the Author

Leah Otto

Leah Otto is a content marketing writer for Collegis Education. She holds a Master of Business Communication from the University of St. Thomas, Minnesota. She has taught over nine semesters of college-level marketing and public relations.

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