First Year Abroad programs: a game changer for your Admissions Office?

A winning move, chess piece on a board symbolizing alternative start programs abroad are a great strategic idea

This article is part of a Big Pond series which also includes The 5 point guide to building a First Year Abroad program and The place of pathways and creative year 1 programming in U.S. Higher Ed.

For the VP of Enrollment Management, poring over data to determine who should (and should not) be admitted can make for a lot of head scratching. 

Meanwhile, across America marketing and recruitment teams have lengthy conversations about how to tell the most compelling narrative about their college.  

Whether the number one priority is enrollment management or whether it’s effective differentiation, across college campuses there are growing conversations about developing an alternative start point overseas.  

Enrollment management or a stand out value proposition?

Attracting (or keeping applicants) are the two key benefits of an alternative start, abroad

An alternative start overseas can enhance your college’s transfer strategy by offering a select group of your applicants a tailored pathway directly into the second semester (or second year). 

Or, it can make for a major point of differentiation when you’re looking to tell your college’s story in a crowded market. This is no small consideration given the number of undergraduate enrollments have been declining since 2010.    

If you’re reading this, the chances are that your priority will either be strengthening your college’s value proposition, or it will be around retention and enrollment management. 

Let’s take a look at the two start abroad models that will allow you to meet one of these goals.

Goal # 1:

A transfer strategy. The ‘enrollment management’ pathway 

Offer a start point abroad for a semester or year to a select group of applicants who may not quite reach your institution’s admissions criteria, and who would benefit from additional study.

It’s important to stress that a ‘select group of applicants’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘weak applicants’.  If you’ve got a strong acceptance rate, you could be needlessly losing hundreds (or thousands) of well-rounded prospective students from your marketing and recruitment funnel.  

In this model, you’d be offering places on your pathway overseas to your non-admitted students.  This means these applicants would effectively become your ring fenced transfer students who are committed to entering your college the following January. 

You’d set the condition that they pass the requirement of the start abroad program to become a ‘January admit’.

Like any other student transferring in, participants in this model will not only fill spaces left by students who drop out during the first year, they will also occupy their bedspaces.  Even colleges with a high retention have too many empty beds beyond the first semester.    

Who has adopted this model

Elon University, The College of Charleston and Northeastern University, among others. 


This is a fantastic initiative if your institution has a burgeoning number of applicants who don’t quite meet the selectivity of your entry criteria.  

Your enrollment management team has complete ownership over who is offered the program.  There’s scope to offer a start point abroad to the entire group of your ordinarily rejected or ordinarily waitlisted applicants.  Alternatively, if you’re a large school, consider offering this to applicants from a single faculty or department. 

Whether it’s all the students you don’t admit that are offered your alternative start / pathway abroad or a select group, in both cases you keep more people in your application funnel.

There’s also a real financial benefit to this model.  This is a group of applicants who ordinarily wouldn’t have attended your institution, paid your tuition or paid for residential services.  Even if your start abroad program has just 10 participants, the lifetime income to your college represented by those 10 people is considerable. 


Participants on the program in this model would have to be self-funded.  This is because as non-matriculating students they can’t access financial aid until they enroll at your college come semester (or year) 2.  

Goal # 2

Improved value proposition / differentiating your institution

Typically, institutions offering this model will include on their Common App (or other) form an option to begin semester 1 at the home campus or at the start point abroad. 

In this way, you are giving all of your successful admits the option to start their college journey with you abroad.  

Consider this option if you’re looking to set your college apart from competitors and reach individuals outside of your standard demographic.  

Blue butterfly amongst many orange butterflies.  Symbolizing standing out in a crowded field
Standing out in a crowded field. Offering a start point to successful Admits will set your college apart

Who has adopted this model

Marist College, Skidmore College, Pace University, Baylor University, Colorado School of Mines are notable examples.


An outstanding feature for your marketing and recruitment teams to leverage in their outreach activities.  

Your teams will currently have several features to talk about when it comes to raising interest in your institution.  Those features are likely to include student and academic life, career opportunities and alumni links.  Your competitors’ marketing and recruitment teams will be having very similar conversations. 

Imagine the improved value proposition to your college by being able to add the following to your marketing: 'If you apply to us, you can spend semester one either at our home campus, or inDublin, Ireland'. 

There is evidence that even students who don’t undertake the overseas option are more likely to commit to a college.  The logic being that the very existence of the program abroad strengthens an emotional engagement with the institution because it is different.

Offering a start point abroad to your admitted students (and individuals looking to apply in the first place) is a stand out marker of your college’s commitment to career-enhancing skill development.  This is a big win in your college’s ‘positioning story’. 

"Imagine the improved value proposition to your college by being able to add the following to your marketing: 'If you apply to us, you can spend semester one either at our home campus, or in Dublin, Ireland'."

Tell an engaging story integrating both your start abroad program and on campus career development focus: you’ll directly be addressing the growing feeling that college is a ‘bad bet’.   

Finally, in comparison to “Goal # 1: A transfer strategy” the students in this second model will be classified as fully matriculating students from the start.  This means they can access financial aid like all your other admitted students.  


You’re offering the overseas start point to your admits, so it’s competing with the draw of your home campus.  This means that communicating the virtues of the overseas start point can’t be left to initial marketing and recruitment activities like high school fairs and digital awareness raising.  

How to work around this? See point 4 of our sister article The 5 point guide to building a start abroad programs for more on this. For starters, put on a session about the program at your admit days, attended by your college president can work well, not to mention inserts in direct mail campaigns and mail shots.

Whichever of these objectives is your priority…

… the group returning to campus in January will help meet several of your college’s goals.  

They will backfill the beds from students you don’t retain after semester 1.  They will help with your outbound study abroad goals (students who’ve had an experience abroad are more likely to express an interest in further study abroad than someone who hasn’t).

Marist College students on the first year Dublin Experience in Dublin, Ireland.  Award winning alternative start abroad program
Marist College's First Year Abroad experience is an award winner. Image at Howth, Dublin, Ireland

Offering a start point abroad can literally be an award winning initiative for your institution - a gift for its wider identity in the sector.  An honorable mention to Marist College, one of Big Pond’s partners in Dublin: on the back of its distinctive First Year Abroad programs in Dublin and Florence, Marist received NAFSA’s 2022 Senator Paul Simon Spotlight Award for Campus Internationalization.

For the students themselves, they will benefit from career enhancing skills polished abroad, and will bring international perspectives back to campus for their classmates to learn from.

What next?

Our team has partnered with several colleges to develop and deliver start abroad programs over many years in Dublin, Ireland.  

Whatever stage of the journey you’re at with putting together a start abroad program at your college, consider contacting us to have an informal chat and talk through all things first semester abroad. 

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