Acumen Leadership in Conversation – With Joe Arangio: How economic uncertainty will drive enrolment in 2023

Joe Arangio, Acumen’s Senior Vice President, North America has led business development, operations, and program delivery across education’s public, nonprofit and proprietary sectors at the post-graduate, post-secondary and K-12 levels. Joe’s expertise in navigating international education’s complex regulations is routinely used to create learning opportunities that might not otherwise exist.

He has overseen administration and finance for a public university and directed strategic planning for a network of 120+ K-12 schools that enrolled more than 42,000 students. He has built international learning programs with seven US universities and oversaw construction of a new $50 mm USD campus in 2016.  He recently volunteered his time to secure non-profit status in the United States for a charity that builds elementary schools in remote regions of Cambodia, Myanmar, and Nepal.  He also served on the charity’s inaugural Board of Directors.

What happened in 2022?

The North American international education market demonstrated remarkable resiliency in 2022 as global recruiting markets rebounded more quickly than had been anticipated and international student enrollment approached pre-pandemic levels.   Students from around the world exhibited profound interest in enrolling in American and Canadian degree programs.

The only observed challenge was that the Canadian government did scale its student visa processing functions in alignment with explosive demand which resulted in a diminished visa conversion rate; however, there was strong demand to return to Canada once the pandemic’s impacts abated and borders reopened.

What were the main struggles/complications you heard clients and those in the education sector discuss this year?

The conversation in Canada focused on visa conversion rates. The Canadian government agency that processes visas had a 15% reduction in their staffing complement and a limited budget that was appropriated by the government. The representative of that government agency has now been unsuccessful in his attempt to get more budget to hire and train new staff.

US conversations focused on selecting the best way to restore, reinvigorate and diversify international student enrollment.  Every possible option was explored this past year: pathway programs, direct overseas recruiting, asynchronous/synchronous online curriculum delivery, overseas brick-and-mortar campuses, partnerships, you name it.  The wealth of opportunities has caused a little  “paralysis by analysis” as there are lots of great solutions out there….the challenge is in selecting the best one.  The conversation also focused on entering new and emerging recruiting markets in South Asia and Southeast Asia.

Do we expect challenges to continue into 2023?

On the Canadian side, the government will need to scale visa processing functions and systems to meet explosive international demand for Canadian education.  Canada is a highly attractive study destination and application volume from global markets will not abate any time soon.  Canada’s pathway to permanent residency for international students will continue to fuel demand for Canadian universities.

Will the higher education market in the US and Canada be affected by rising inflation and a looming recession? If so, how?

There’s a strong probability that a recession will trigger increased enrollment at universities, particularly at the postgraduate level.  Historically, if the economy falters and there aren’t lucrative jobs or money to be made, enrollment increases as people head to school to develop new skills, expand their knowledge base and improve their credentials to better position themselves to realize lucrative opportunities in a rising, post-recession economy.  Traditionally, graduate programs and professional schools see the largest increases in application volume and enrollment during recessionary periods.

What trends can we expect to emerge or continue in 2023?

Mission-driven organizations will continue to prioritize diversity.  There will be a continued effort to create avenues of accessibility to a high-quality education for overlooked and underserved students.

Why is this trend important for higher education leaders?

It’s important because it’s a trend that actually comes from higher education leaders as part of their effort to fulfill their mission of taking an egalitarian approach to educating students. They’re acknowledging the need to transition from past practice and embrace models that create equity and makes education accessible to historically underrepresented students.  Inclusiveness and accessibility are prevailing trends.

How does this trend link to student or parent decision-making or trends?

Interestingly, the decision-making criteria used by students and their families are the same the world over.  There’s tremendous commonality in the decision-making used by students in the United States and India and Vietnam that defies geography.  Students and their families are looking for safe-and-secure learning environments, skill development, and preparedness for either the professional workforce or the next level of education.

I think a definite trend, especially among international students coming to the United States, is mindfulness toward return on investment. They want to develop skills that will enable professional opportunities for the foreseeable future.

American students studying overseas are a bit less mindful of ROI or vocational opportunities.   They’re eager to study literature and philosophy at the undergraduate levels purely for the education and not for the vocational opportunities that their academic pursuits might unlock.   They place a premium on culturally immersive experiences, classroom learning and the university’s pedagogical approach.  Broadly speaking, international students going to the US are quite the opposite they are very aware of their professional prospects, post-graduation.

Where should higher education leaders invest their time, money, and resources?

From a US or Canadian perspective, they should focus on India and Southeast Asia.  China has been well-represented on American college campuses for more than a decade; however,  students enrollments from China began to decline prior to the pandemic and simmering geopolitical tensions between the United States and China are going to preclude the restoration of that particular student body at American universities. The only other market of scale that can supplant China is India as India, with its enormous school-aged population, priortizes education and has a growing middle class with a strong interest of securing an American education for their children.

Of course, universities should not approach recruiting monolithically and diversification and accessibility remain the foremost priorities.  It creates an enriching learning environment and fulfills their mission.  With that in mind, there is demonstrated demand in Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and elsewhere across Southeast Asia for American or Canadian education.

Despite its comparatively modest size, Vietnam has the 3rd largest international student population in the United States at the K-12 level.  That sizable population has flown under the radar and quietly existed for more than a decade.  Vietnamese families have long-believed that early immersion in the American system increases the probability of gaining entry to a highly selective university and they may be right in their belief.

What do you hope to happen?

What I’d like to have happen is no more Black Swan events in the foreseeable future.

What three positives have you found in the marketplace or business?

Three positives in the North American education sector would be:

  1. The restoration of international student enrollments at US K-12 and post-secondary institutions
  2. The increased diversification of those enrolments with no overreliance on one particular country and a broader mix of students from different countries and geographies
  3. There were 400,000 American students enrolled in overseas universities.  That number dropped to 162,000 during the pandemic.  Early indicators are American students are once again pursuing enrollment in universities outside the United States..

Check out more from Acumen leadership in conversation for more reflections, insights, and predictions for 2023.