September 2012 issue

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US community colleges

International students are increasingly looking to US community colleges to provide them with job-ready skills for the marketplace, as well as a stepping stone to a US university degree. Bethan Norris reports.

With their focus on providing students with practical skills needed for the rapidly changing international job market, US community colleges are becoming increasingly popular with students looking to maximise their study abroad experience. Many community colleges actively recruit overseas students and report increasing enrolments from key markets.

Arlene Spencer from Fulton-Montgomery Community College in Johnstown, NY, points to China as a particularly promising market. “We have seen a big increase in students from mainland China,” she says. “We have recruited in China for the last few years and are starting to see some results of those recruitment efforts.” Ross Jennings from Green River Community College Auburn, WA, agrees that Chinese student numbers have increased in recent years. “Chinese enrolment in the USA has exploded everywhere,” he says, adding, “We started developing programmes and ties in China in 1994, so we were well positioned to grow our Chinese enrolment when it took off generally.”

Increasing Chinese enrolments can be put down to a number of factors – both in changing attitudes and an easing of physical restrictions – as well as increased marketing efforts, according to Spencer. “In China we have seen a more positive understanding of community colleges both with students and their families as well as with the US visa granting offices,” she says, while David Cordell at Edmonds Community College in Lynnwood, WA, says, “We hear that visas are easier to get now in China and enrolments are increasing from there.” However, he adds more work needs to be done to make the system fairer. “We also hear that individual consulates and visa staff in China vary in the ease with which they offer visas,” he confirms.

Other student markets that have traditionally performed well for US community colleges include Hong Kong, Vietnam, Japan, Korea and Indonesia, and colleges report that enrolments from these countries remain strong. Spencer says, “Strong support for community colleges in Vietnam by the US government and Edu USA offices has been very helpful with that market.”

Kelly Kester from Whatcom Community College in Bellingham, WA, says a variety of factors are currently influencing enrolment numbers from the key markets. “Political and economic stability and diplomatic ties have been good for Indonesia, visa issuance seems to be easier in Vietnam, parents with the financial resources to send children to study outside of Japan are doing so, [and] Mongolia’s economy is growing at a faster [rate] than anywhere,” he says.

With increased awareness of community colleges, it is important that the colleges make sure courses are hitting the right note with students. Kester explains their most popular courses with overseas students are those offering a pathway to higher education or those that offer an efficient way of gaining qualifications. “University transfer is our top programme,” he says. “It will continue to be attractive as new/developing markets better understand the merits of the programme. High school completion is only available in Washington State and allows students to earn an associate degree and high school diploma at the same time.”

Colleges report courses with strong job prospects are the most appealing. Jennings says, “Business, IT and engineering are most popular with international students. We have a very strong aviation programme which is also very popular.” Shemila Johnson at Solano Community College in Fairfield, CA, says their nursing and business programmes are the most popular, adding, “Recently we have partnered with Sonoma State University to offer a Bachelor of Arts degree in liberal studies to our students.”

Spencer reports meeting industry requirements has also helped recruitment. “Our electrical technology programme has been redesigned and emphasises skills needed for nanotechnology,” she says. “It was not done specifically for an international market, it was done for the fast-pace changes happening in the industry, but we have seen interest in the programme by international students as a result.”

When it comes to marketing, colleges report a varied approach in different markets. “We have participated in a variety of efforts,” says Spencer, listing high school visits in target markets, recruiting fairs in both China and Vietnam, virtual fairs and agencies. “Agencies and high school visits seem to be the most effective recruiting endeavours.” The use of agents seems to provide the backbone of many colleges’ recruitment efforts, as Kester explains. “Our key strategy is using consultants and supporting their work through in-country visits/fairs.”

Visa headaches

While international enrolments at US community colleges for some student markets have been performing well in recent times, many colleges report continued difficulties associated with the US student visa application system. Many colleges’ employees feel that the system is simply too complicated or that legitimate students are being denied visas to study in the USA.

Shemila Johnson at Solano Community College in Fairfield, CA, says that for some nationalities, the situation has been getting worse rather than better in recent years. “The challenge of getting a visa has had the most negative impact on our school and international students who want to study here,” says Johnson. “In the past couple of years, I have had more students be refused a visa than I have had in the seven years I have been working in this area.”

Ross Jennings at Green River Community College in Auburn, WA, agrees that the visa application system is a negative factor in their international student recruitment strategy. “US visas are still unpredictable and the process is complicated, expensive and humiliating,” he asserts.

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Impact English College  
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