How to recruit international students for online programs

5 min read

Chelsea Castonguay Stanhope

As the world of online higher education continues to change and evolve, more schools are thinking about how to expand their global outreach.

Online learning offers a broad range of opportunities for students. Not only can they take courses from anywhere on the planet, online courses allow students to log in from anywhere in the country. Additionally, online courses enable students to work, raise families, and still pursue their educational goals.


However, online schools are now faced with the problem of figuring out the best ways to connect with these potential students, as well as demonstrate the efficacy of their programs. With the challenges comes opportunities for growth, so here are some ways schools can attract students.





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Even though students were rapidly forced into online learning, that didn’t necessarily mean they were thrilled about the prospect of having to learn exclusively from behind a computer screen. Students aren’t always entirely sure they could rely on the validity of the education they were receiving through online programs. In order to move forward, students need to be assured they’re receiving an education equitable to that of in-person degrees. This can be done by providing transparency about courses, access to professors, and securing credentials. Sharing testimonials from students or alumni, and providing information about job placements after graduation can also help information-seeking students understand that your organization is the real deal. 


Provide what they’re missing


No matter how students decide to pursue an online degree, it’s important to remember they are still university students. Therefore, many may still want the perks, connections, and services that on campus students usually enjoy. Students can feel disconnected when their only interactions with their peers are through screens, or those interactions are limited solely to a virtual classroom experience. For example, consider providing options for online social connections, such as through programs, or networking opportunities. Make sure that services students get a in-person schools such as mental health services, career counseling, and academic advising are still available for your students. This will demonstrate to students that your school is motivated to provide them with the experience they would receive at a more traditional institution. 


Support students


International students can struggle to find their way in the new environment that is an online class, especially if they’re attending a school in a different country from their own. Some of these struggles can be related to cultural differences, as students interact with their peers and classmates differently depending on their home country. Therefore, one thing that can set your university apart is a commitment to providing students with the support they need to help them find success in their online classes. According to, to “promote international students’ academic success in online classrooms, faculty should not only focus on teaching their subject matter knowledge, but also consider modifying their course designs to make online contents accessible to diverse learners.” Instructors and staff can be prepared to provide a synonymous and accessible learning environment that supports all their students, no matter what country they’re logging in from.


Identify your target audience


As online universities expand, it’s natural they would also want to connect with and recruit students from across the world. As a result, it’s important to sit down and consider not only the mission of your organization, but also your target audience so you can best tailor your marketing to meet those demographics. When thinking about expanding into international countries, think about the type of students you hope to attract. What are their goals for pursuing higher education? Do they live in a place that supports the infrastructure necessary to have an exclusively online program? What programs and degree paths are going to be valuable to them once they graduate? Surveys and market research of the countries you want to recruit from can provide your university with valuable information as to whether or not an online institution is something that will be appropriate for that region or country.


Establish an online presence


Today’s students are well-informed, and savvy when it comes to navigating the internet in the pursuit of information. They don’t tend to wait for information after it’s requested, nor do they linger on websites that don’t suit their needs. Therefore, in order to gain trust and credibility, it’s important to establish a trustworthy online presence. Websites should have clear, concise language that’s easy to understand, so students can quickly determine if it’s the right place for them. The website should be easy to navigate, information should be easy to obtain, and questions or inquiries responded to promptly. Additionally, offering translated information in a variety of languages can provide an extra touch of service to students who are program shopping. 


Creating sharp, interesting, and informative content for your social media pages is another great way to establish your brand, and gain trust from potential students. Bring students into the world of your online program, and let them know that they’re going to have a great, full, and rich experience with your university. 

Recruit from multiple sources


While it can be tempting to go with some of the tried and true methods for recruiting international students, COVID-19 changed the landscape for recruitment. Students aren’t necessarily in their home countries, or have just recently returned home after being abroad for the last two years, but still might be looking for opportunities to pursue a higher education. Therefore, look for other ways to connect, such as working with international consultants, high school and secondary school counselors, study abroad programs, and countries state education departments. Thinking outside the box for recruitment can help you tap into areas for possible students that haven’t previously been explored. 


While there are some challenges related to recruiting international students for online programs, as you can see, they aren’t insurmountable. Careful planning, consideration of your target audience, as well as providing transparency can build trust with students. Once students feel as though your organization is one that will provide the educational experience they’re looking for, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to see them committing to your program.

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