Why US Schools Should Be Recruiting International Student Athletes

4 min read

G. John Cole

Fewer US Gen Z students are participating in extracurricular sports in high school. Participation in baseball, basketball, football, and soccer has fallen 4% in 10 years among young people in the US, with around half of all teenagers not playing for a sports team.

This is a concern for institutions who invested heavily in amenities to meet the demands of preceding generations – but it is also an excellent opportunity for colleges to reconsider their policies towards international student athletes.

Why US colleges benefit from recruiting international student athletes

Diversity is a strength on the playing field and in the classroom. A team or cohort with a broad range of backgrounds entertains a diverse variety of skills and perspectives and will perform and develop better and more richly. Not to mention the fact that a wider talent pool allows schools to make up for a lack of domestic talents.

“International students, athletes or otherwise, can provide a valuable sense of diversity and a positive dynamic which enriches the team environment and educational experience,” says Professor Maureen Weston, author of Internationalization in College Sports: Issues in Recruiting, Amateurism, and Scope.

College sports teams currently want for this diversity. When you take into account the less headline-grabbing sports such as tennis or lacrosse, and not just those playing basketball or football, white students account for 61% of student athletes (79% in the Division III New England Small College Athletic Conference).

Just a glimpse at the top-performing international soccer clubs should be enough to convince recruiters that diversity is good for the team!

How to market to international student athletes

Of course, it’s not as simple as ‘build it and they will come.’ International student athletes (ISAs) are, by definition, a diverse bunch who will respond to different marketing approaches and face different transition issues on arrival. This includes things such as language skills; some countries provide more thorough English language skills than others, and weak language proficiency can lead to intimidation and isolation in the classroom or on the playing field.

Taking this into account, schools that offer additional language tuition and are clear about the levels of proficiency required are more likely to connect with talented students who are unsure about making the leap.

Talented young sportspeople may feel attached to their home country, where they are already established with a club and developing a sporting career and reputation. So US universities need to think about what they can offer students in return for a potential upheaval. Scholarships might be the answer.

“I think they come to an American institution to get an education and further develop their skills in their sport,” says Magdi El Shahawy, director of USC Student-Athlete Academic Services. “They get a chance to get a free education, where sports don’t provide that for them in their own country.”

And institutions might also look to international secondary schools around the world for recruits. Such schools often provide a U.S.-centric education and boast a high standard of academic and sporting performance among their students – who may also be more open to traveling for higher education.

Make their transition to US college life smoother

Unfortunately, recent developments have made the States feel an unwelcoming place for international talent. So it is up to institutions to reassure and inform potential students about immigration status and visa requirements and to make sure the information they provide is up-to-date. For example, full-time enrolment is obligatory to obtain an F-1 visa, so tempting a ‘ringer’ to your team with promises of a distance-learning option is not going to work.

Take care of your students once they arrive on campus. Make sure that support services are not just ‘available,' but part of the culture of your college, and check in with your ISAs regularly – including during academic breaks, when it can be a good idea to create additional programming.

Remember that sports-oriented students from foreign cultures may not place the same relative emphasis on athletics and academics as home students. They may have very different expectations of what life as a college sports star means!

And one special detail to look out for is the relationship students have with their coach. Sports coaches may play a key role in inviting and persuading an ISA to enroll at a particular college. But many such students report feeling undervalued by their coach upon arrival. On the other hand, support from the coach and teammates can make all the difference to an ISA’s adjustment to the classroom, playing field, and American culture and daily life.

Tips and resources like these can help these athletes to settle in and crack on with minimum fuss and maximum energy, so your international sports stars can concentrate on what’s important – and spread the good word about your school to the generations that follow.

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