University IEPs: get the business back

Right after September 11, 2001, when many IEP student left the country and new applications tailed off to near-zero, I received some advice from a good friend: “Be here when the business comes back.” What he meant was to increase the school’s visibility, especially online, because the downturn wasn’t going to last forever and prospective students would once again be looking for schools to study English in the U.S. So I worked like a fiend to develop the school’s website, turning it into not only an information source in multiple languages, but also a highly efficient sales tool. I learned about SEO and made sure the site was appearing at the top of the search results. In time, the business did come back and sales turned around and took off.

Many IEPs, especially those in universities, have not been very well oriented to promoting themselves. For a few years, it was more or less enough to hang out a sign and wait for the students to arrive. Not any more. In these times of reduced enrollments, university IEPs need to take active steps to seek new students. They should adopt a three-point strategy:

  1. Define and communicate the unique value of the IEP. If your IEP looks just like any other, then you have a commodity and a race to the bottom on price. Sit down with your faculty, staff, university colleagues, students, and external contacts, and really figure out what makes your program unique. In most cases, it won’t be a single feature but a combination of features that are unique to your program. Think about the benefits of your location, your faculty’s expertise, opportunities for community interaction, and university resources. Also, keep in mind that you are unlikely to be attractive to all students everywhere. What is your niche? What do you want to be known for?  Once you have defined it, communicate it – on your website, in your social media, in your brochure, and whenever you and your staff talk to others about your program. If you advertise, be sure to include your message in your advertising.
  2. Develop new programs and adapt existing ones. Accept that the market is changing, and that what was attractive ten years ago may be less so today. Be aware – through conference attendance, reading (ICEF Monitor, The PIE Weekly, etc.), and your conversations with your external contacts – of what new programs are likely to be attractive. Match these ideas with your faculty’s expertise, and get faculty on board with program development. Think about populations you haven’t served, such as short-term summer high school students, incoming degree students, or professionals, and develop new content and means of delivery to appeal to these markets. Once you have developed curricula, put these new programs on your website and in your materials to signal your program’s capacity to deliver them, and talk them up in your conversations.
  3. Actively recruit students. As the cliché says, waiting for the phone to ring is not a good sales strategy. Expensive student fairs are generally not very effective for individual IEPs. Go with recruitment methods that are likely to lead to repeat business over time. Identify target countries based on resources such as Open Doors, Dr. Education, and NAFSA. See if you can work with the Undergraduate Admissions Office or the graduate colleges on campus to piggy-back on their recruitment and outreach efforts.   If you are permitted to work with agents, increase your network through agent fairs or in-country visits, or work more closely with your existing partners. Work with EducationUSA offices and try the State Department’s Gold Key service to connect with institutions and corporations in your target countries. Connect with foreign institutions at NAFSA and develop those relationships.

These are trying times for most university IEPs. If they are to survive and thrive in a hyper-competitive environment and during uncertain political times, they need to be pro-active. It’s not enough to wait for the business to come back. The strategy outlined above will get an IEP moving in a positive direction and ready to take on future shifts in the markets.