Why a first year program abroad should be part of your Admissions strategy

Black sign pointing to the Admissions Office at an American university

Improved recruitment & retention of American students aren’t the only merits of the 'start-abroad' model, which for years has stood in the shadow of its headline-grabbing, overseas student cousin

The relative benefits of on-campus international student pathway centers have in recent years been championed and criticized in equal measure.  To their proponents, they offer an enrollment management solution that has the scope to generate valuable international fee income.  To their detractors, they seldom live up to their promise and exist on a model of agent-based commission the university has no oversight over.  The growth of these on-campus international study centers and the vendors who provide them have certainly taken up all the attention when it comes to pathway models.  This is a shame, not least when it comes to considering the virtues of an often unexplored model.  Namely, the development of a freshman / first year program overseas for American applicants.  

The jury is still out when it comes to on-campus pathway centers for international students.  Far less so for the more domestically focused 'start-abroad' model.  Building such a start-abroad program can bring numerous advantages to both universities and students alike.  For professionals looking to improve their strategic enrollment management model, a start abroad program allows for complete institutional ownership over who is offered a place on it and ultimately, who enrolls on campus. While furthering the recruitment and retention of American students is a key benefit, developing a first year program for domestic students represents a cost-effective investment in a university’s internal capacities. Finally, at a stroke the development of a first year pathway abroad for American students boosts a university’s experiential learning credentials. This is because by definition, the students a university will ultimately send abroad on a pathway program will be immersed in a very different context. 

"Crucially, for professionals looking to improve their strategic enrollment management model, a first year pathway abroad allows for complete institutional ownership over who is offered a place on it and ultimately, who enrolls on campus."

International student pathway centers: a win-win…?

The rising number of universities opting to enter into a partnership with third party organizations to build, recruit and manage first year programs for overseas students continues to grow. The concept of 'international pathway centers' or ‘third party pathways’ is increasingly understood across American campuses, and indeed across the university sector in the English-speaking world.  So too are the companies themselves: Shorelight Education, INTO, Kaplan, Study Group, Navitas, IDP and Kings Education to name a few.  

Diverse group of three students around a table drinking coffee and discussing work on a laptop. One Chinese student, one female and one white male
The promise of international student pathway centers? Diverse students paying overseas fees.

It’s unsurprising these pathway providers are becoming well known in the sector.  Ten years ago, there were almost no international pathway centers located on American campuses.  Now, several dozen such relationships exist.  This is a small number compared to the huge size of the US higher education sector as a whole.  This means that America represents an attractive market for international pathway providers.  Emerging at first in the UK and Australia, a significant minority of universities in those countries have now entered agreements with these providers.   

For some universities, the pandemic has not diluted the allure of entering a relationship with these  entities, whether it’s within America or elsewhere.  In the last two years alone, INTO has entered relationships with the University of Arizona and the University of Huddersfield, UK. Kaplan now has a relationship with the University of Connecticut and Study Group with the University of Western Australia. 

The big draw in partnering with third party, international pathway providers is of course the prospect of increased revenue through the recruitment of more international students than universities could reach themselves.  Corporate pathway providers brandish their huge agent network in parts of the world that would require universities to expend significant financial outlay to tap into themselves.

…or a double-edged sword?

Widen the lens, however and the picture isn’t all rosy.  The change in the number of first-time international students arriving on campus in the years before Covid makes for awkward reading.  From healthy increases every year to mid-decade, the year on year figure declined by 3% in 2016-17, a huge 7% in 2017-18 and 1% in 2018-19.  Encouraging Open Doors top-line data for the 2020/21 year conceal an ongoing decline in new international student enrollment.  Successes that are highlighted on corporate websites mask a very mixed picture, and it’s not hard to work out why: declining, full time international students coming to America with more pathways opening up mean more partnerships chasing fewer students.  

To be sure, unfriendly rhetoric from the Trump administration played a part, but there are other geopolitical headwinds outside of the sector’s control.  It is unclear how the ongoing relationship with China will affect the Chinese student market and there are no signs that Saudi Arabia will reverse its cut to the Saudi scholarship fund.  Rarely is it mentioned in initial discussions that an international bridging company's agent network is the same network as their competitors in this space.  Indeed, many universities who use agents will have those same companies listed as their representatives on their own websites.  It’s an open secret that private pathway providers who offer international student pathways typically reward agents with a much higher commission rate than universities themselves can afford.

Whatever the verdict on the relative merits of the international student pathway market, the primary driver propelling universities to consider these agreements remains the same.  Simply put:  additional fee income through the recruitment of students who would not otherwise have enrolled.  

"It’s an open secret that private pathway providers who offer international student pathways typically reward agents with a much higher commission rate than universities themselves can afford."

Enrollment and retention of domestic students

Black male student with a bag on his shoulder walking through glass doors. Green tree in the foreground
Going places. But where? Fewer enrollments across the sector mean universities need to find points of differentiation more than ever

Given the headwinds facing universities, giving consideration to how to access the international student market is of course understandable.  An award winning 2017 work, Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education, predicted the drop in enrollments across America would be 9% lower in 2029 compared to the figure in 2012.  Fall 2021 enrollment data suggests 9% might be optimistic: public 4 year college enrollments declined by 3.1% between Fall 2019 and Fall 2021.  The figure for private non-profit 4 year schools is a decline of 1.2%.  

Other challenges are equally pressing, not least the imperative to improve students’ essential / global skills set.  These difficulties are significant, and there is no single magic bullet.

There is a clear, underlying recruitment impetus behind entering a partnership to open a center on campus with an international student pathway provider.  However, in taking a similar approach but with American students, universities can start to push back against the challenges already upon the sector.  Indeed, building a freshman / first semester (or first year) pathway abroad for domestic students brings additional benefits other than recruitment and retention.  Not least, infusing the home campus on the students' return with international perspectives and a skills set which puts them in a better place to graduate faster than their peers.  

First year pathways abroad – the landscape to date

The development of a first year pathway abroad for American students is not a new concept in the higher education landscape, but receives far less print space than the on-campus, international student model.  The approaches followed by various universities who have developed such pathways for their American students vary, but the crux is the same: students will spend their first semester (or year) not on the home campus, but at a center overseas.  On their return in semester two or year two, they join the campus community.

"...a freshman / first semester (or first year) pathway abroad brings additional benefits other than recruitment and retention.  Not least, infusing the home campus on the students' return with international perspectives and a skills set which puts them in a better place to graduate faster than their peers."  
Young black girl sitting cross legged on a sofa reading a book, wearing a black hat
First year pathway programming for American students: attracting an adventurous, independently-minded demographic

While universities signing agreements with international pathway providers for on-campus centers make the headlines, universities offering long-standing first year programs abroad for their own American applicants continue to be joined by newcomers.  A brief list of examples shows the breadth of institutions offering such pathway programs: NYU offers a First Year Away program in each of Abu Dhabi, London, Florence, Madrid or Paris (depending on a student’s major).  FSU’s First Semester Abroad gives students the choice of starting in London, Panama City, Florence or Valencia.   Northeastern offers four international sites in Thessaloniki, Rome, London, Dublin (and a fifth, in Boston itself).  Skidmore, Pace and Baylor also have an offering in this space.  It’s not only full-portfolio universities with such an offering.  Specialists do too: The Colorado School of Mines has a first year program in Antibes, France.  Berklee College of Music students can start their college life in Valencia, Spain.    

In all cases, universities will benefit from reaching a demographic the standard ‘four years on the home campus’ model would most probably not.  That is, students who are adventurous, independently-minded and keen to try something slightly out of the ordinary.  In other words, attributes that most colleges aim to have ordinarily nurtured by the time a student graduates.  For any colleges looking to enhance the appeal of their university’s brand, offering applicants the option to begin their program in an overseas city as an alternative to the home campus can put clear blue water between themselves and a competitor college.  

The many benefits of developing a start abroad program for domestic students

A start abroad program as a differentiator

The pandemic has made the need to find a real point of difference over peer-group universities more pressing than ever, with 67% of higher education leaders in 2020 saying decreased revenue from tuition and student housing are the biggest challenges they now face.  While clearly the pandemic is responsible for some of this anxiety, the challenges relating to decreased revenue have been mounting for years.  It is still too early to tell how far the 93% rise in learners taking wholly virtual courses in the pandemic period is a watershed moment.  In any case, the need for universities to have a robust, stand out offering is stronger than ever. 

"For any colleges looking to enhance the appeal of their university’s brand, offering applicants the option to begin their program in an overseas city as an alternative to the home campus can put clear blue water between themselves and a competitor college."  

Offering students a destination abroad to start their college life can help drive commitment to a university, and therefore improve an enrollment management professional’s yield rate.  There is evidence that even students who don’t undertake the overseas option are more likely to commit to a university.  The logic being that the very existence of the program strengthens the emotional engagement of all applicants with that university’s identity. 

It’s worth noting that in all but one of the universities cited above, students are still eligible to apply for federal aid.  This is because all are matriculating students, and their choice of starting their college life in Dublin (for instance) as an alternative to NYC (for instance) is clearly built into that university’s Common App process. 

A start abroad program as an approach to enrollment management 

Open laptop with the hands of two young people pointing at university options on the Common App
At the click of a mouse: a 2% increase in the number of students applying to colleges in 2021 but an 11% increase in total applications submitted

Northeastern is the outlier in the above group of institutions insofar as students are not eligible for FAFSA aid.  This is because the NU.in program is non-matriculating.  The N.U.in program is essentially a non-residential bridging program (other than a site in Boston). Students are required to meet certain academic requirements set by Northeastern by the end of their semester abroad in order to progress to the home campus in Boston.  Students do not apply to the program per se, but are offered a place after their initial application has been vetted. 

In this regard, first year programming offers another advantage to enrollment management professionals: keeping applicants in the recruitment funnel.  With this approach, colleges have the flexibility of offering the bridging program to applicants who don’t quite meet the admissions standards (yet).  In building a non-matriculating model for this caliber of applicants, the extra few months or year can see not only an improvement in personal growth but also academic credentials.

Increasingly across the US, and especially since the pandemic, there has been a growth in the number of university applications submitted.  As of March 2021, the annual increase in the number of applications submitted through the Common App was 11%.  This being with just a 2% lift in users on the Common App itself, the difference accounted for by the average student now casting a wider net.  Fall 2021 saw the most highly selective institutions grow enrollment by 4.3% - a firm indicator of continued demand at the top of the education pyramid.  For those universities that have been fortunate enough to be in receipt of more interest, offering a number of applicants a first semester experience abroad makes a lot of sense from an enrollment management perspective.  The N.U.in program is a case in point.  It’s an extraordinarily popular program, with hundreds of students participating each fall, all with their goal being to enroll in semester 2 in Boston.  

A start abroad program and improved overall retention 

Here lies the other great advantage of establishing a first year pathway overseas: improved retention.  Across American campuses, a full 1 in 4 students don’t return for their second year.  Students drop out for a variety of reasons, including financial and family-related.  A full 1 in 10 American students don’t return because they transfer to another college.  Even universities with a better than average retention rate find there are too many empty seats beyond the first semester.  

What to do with the bed spaces?

Trying to back-fill classes through bringing in transfer students can be a challenge.  Not to mention the parallel challenge both enrollment management and facilities professionals face trying to fill vacant dorms.  Any semester 2 incoming transfer students will fill those spaces and help mitigate the retention gap seen over the Christmas vacation.  Even for popular universities, vacant dorm rooms come semester 2 prompt a lot of head scratching.  

"Even universities with a better than average retention rate find there are too many empty seats beyond the first semester."  

Those same universities were often faced with a different sort of problem just a few months beforehand - trying to find bed spaces for bulging student numbers at the start of semester 1.   The pandemic has accentuated the challenge.  For many colleges, September 2021 saw surging demand for places, leading to some novel solutions.  Colleges converting lounges and open spaces to residences.  Students being paid $5000 to withdraw their housing request (Dartmouth College). Students being offered $3500 per year of their degree if they defer (The University of Tampa).              

The disadvantages (?) of first year programming abroad

3 female students around a table with computers, including a blonde haired girl in the middle, who is smiling
First year students in an overseas setting: conditions for a tight-knit learning community

All that glitters…?

How far are these recruitment and retention benefits theoretical?  Putting aside the examples of colleges who already run pathway / bridging programs abroad for American students, the concept is not without detractors.  There are three sources of concern ordinarily raised by critics.  

“Students miss the opportunity to onboard on campus”

The concern most often cited is that American students on a first year abroad semester or year are being removed from the opportunity to bond with fellow students during the all-important first semester on campus.  It is unsurprising this is raised, and is reinforced by the sense that the huge efforts many universities have gone to develop onboarding programs for their first years would not be available to their cohort who’ve gone abroad.  The original nudge towards the growth of campus-based onboarding programs concerned a developmental deficit.  Specifically, that of belonging and community with peers and the wider university’s identity.  This is of course essential for a student’s well-being. 

It is also essential for enrollment management professionals.  From a pedagogical perspective, if students feel a sense of belonging and community, they are more likely to have a higher level of persistence at college.  This stems from a student’s social interaction with peers and their participation in extracurricular activities.  The more a student engages with a peer group, the more they will feel socially integrated.  The more they feel socially integrated with that community, the more they will feel committed to their (university) community.  

Yet, a group of students participating in an overseas first year experience does constitute a learning community.  A limited number of students engaging with one another in an unfamiliar, but supportive environment inside as well as outside the classroom is an example of community-based learning which many universities increasingly work towards.  In fact, this is one of the points Northeastern make in their The Story of N.U.in page

“University leadership observed the strong academic success N.U.in students had once they began classes on campus in the spring, as well as the strong sense of community they brought back.”

“18 year olds are too young to study abroad”

This point about community goes a long way to addressing the second criticism of first year pathways abroad – that students are only 18 when they start.  A manageable group size helps students feel part of a tight-knit group that can sometimes be a struggle on a large campus.  Even for smaller colleges considering a first year pathway abroad, the fact remains that participants tend to be self-filtering (something which touches on the earlier point regarding new student audiences being reached by the development of a first year initiative).  Students exposed to difference within the context of a small learning community have a profile which equips them to adapt well on their subsequent enrollment at the home campus. 

Resources: hidden costs and excessive infrastructure requirements?

The final criticism of first year programming abroad revolves around resourcing.  Specifically, the infrastructure required to house and run the pathway on the one hand, and any hidden financial costs on the other.

The models adopted by universities already running programs in this space are almost as varied as the universities themselves.  Georgia Tech, NYU, Berklee College of Music and FSU have their own centers in-country, run and operated without a local partner.  Their centers are either purpose built, or the university has moved into an existing property and runs all study abroad operations – first year or otherwise – out of it.  Northeastern has a mix of models, including partnerships with local higher education institutions or their own center gained through acquisition.  Almost all of the others have partnered with a provider who operates the program in partnership with the US university.  There’s no right and wrong approach to which model to adopt, but clearly the operational infrastructure commitments are greater if the entire center is run and operated by the home university.  Running a program in partnership with a local provider may appear to dilute the ownership of the program, but a good partner will be apparent after a scoping meeting with them – whether it’s how experienced they are in the local environment, or how far they will support any site staff you may choose to accompany the students. 

"...decisions based on values should be part of the decision making framework.  If there’s any talk of commission for students who go on to enroll at your university that you find uncomfortable, there’ll be another option with a partner who doesn't work on that basis."

The fear of unacceptable financial outlay often prevents universities from exploring the model as much as they might do otherwise.  This may come about because of a lack of transparency upfront between the various options.  Alternatively, it might be driven by much that exists in the higher education media about commission-based relationships.  Namely, some of the eye-watering commissions a number of private international pathway providers put into their contracts with universities for each student who then goes onto enroll with them.  Whichever model enrollment management professionals might choose, for anyone working in the education sector, decisions based on values should be part of the decision making framework.  If there’s any talk of commission for students who go on to enroll at your university that you find uncomfortable, there’ll be another option with a partner who doesn't work on that basis.  

Choosing a pathway model

The growth of international, on-campus pathway centers across America will continue to be a feature of the US higher education landscape for years to come.  Their adoption will be driven by what Rahul Choudaha calls ‘the great unknown’: how to build capacity for international students and secondly, where the international market will come from if it’s not through such centers?  At the heart of this is the imperative of recruitment concerns.  

While the development of an overseas pathway for American students might not hold the same sized carrot as inviting an international student pathway provider on campus, there are clear advantages to a university in incorporating it into an enrollment management and marketing approach.  They strengthen a university’s identity in the key home market and help attract a different student audience.  Importantly, with overall undergraduate enrollment declines from Fall 2019-Fall 2021 running at 3.1% on average at 4 year public schools and 1.2% at private non-profits, the case to keep as many American students in the recruitment funnel grows larger. 

When all is said and done, the macro changes affecting higher education will apply to each university differently.  We talk a lot in the higher education sector about ‘best fit’ for students.  That's equally valid for universities exploring whether to develop an international student pathway center on campus, or a first year pathway abroad for Americans. 


Big Pond Education is a start abroad program provider, with all programming in Dublin, Ireland.     

We partner with universities to build cost effective, supportive programs.  We set universities apart and make a real difference to students.   


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