Growing competition

10 findings about international school admission in 2019

As international education grows, even well-established schools are facing stiff competition. A new survey and report commissioned by the Enrollment Management Association (EMA) is essential reading, not just for Admissions Directors, but for Heads of School. The EMA’s Aimee Gruber reports.

Findings and takeaways

The Enrollment Management Association’s International School Admission Industry Report, conducted with the support of ISC Research, illuminates many of the challenges and opportunities facing international school admission professionals today. Below find 10 key findings and takeaways you can put right to use in your admission office. Read the full report at

1.  Enrollment challenges are real.









International school admission offices are feeling the heat in a fast-growing market. Competition from other schools was survey respondents’ top enrollment challenge. (This is not surprising given that ISC Research cites a four-fold growth in the number of schools in the last two decades.) Further, only 60% of respondents said their schools met their enrollment goals and 35% were still enrolling students after the start of the year.

Takeaway: Brainstorm ways you can stay up to speed on local industry trends, the flow of expatriate families in and out of your city, and new schools/competitors moving in. Share insights with other schools in your region.

2. Schools must pay attention to attrition

More than half of survey respondents (52%) say they have seen an increase in voluntary student attrition. Of those, 16% say the increase is great or significant. Yet at the same time, 86% have no formal committee focused on retention.

Takeaway: Retention is the other side of the enrollment coin, and must be given a whole-school focus. Identify your schools’ attrition patterns — over time and by student type — and plan how to address the issues they reveal. In the report, read about mistakes — e.g., inconsistent communication and academic quality across divisions/grades — that can contribute to attrition.

3. The applicant pool is changing dramatically.

Three quarters of respondents say they’ve seen changes in the applicant pool in the last year; 41% cite more host country students, 35% cite fewer expat families. This adds a layer of complexity for admission directors, who must broaden their outreach, further segment their messaging, and incorporate more cultural acclimation into their approach.

Takeaway: Review a family’s enrollment journey at your school. Is your application process clear at every stage, and for every type of applicant? Are any of your practices—e.g., fees and deadlines— creating unnecessary obstacles? In the report, learn how schools are using personas to segment communications and meet families’ needs.

4. Expats’ educational packages are shrinking.

A third of survey respondents (33%) have experienced changes in policies regarding third-party tuition payments. About half (51%) say families’ employers are now less willing to pay 100% of tuition. As a result, prospective families are having to consider affordability and value more than they have in the past.

Takeaway: Take a fresh look at your marketing strategies. Is your value proposition clear and consistent across all materials? What’s the ROI on each of your outreach activities?

5. Admission’s level of influence remains low.









Although admission professionals are responsible for generating the bulk of a school’s revenue, they are afforded a low level of influence in terms of their involvement with the board and leadership team.

Takeaway: It’s time for admission directors to use their data and deep relationships with families to contribute to leadership-level discussions about enrollment. In the report, read tips for partnering with the business office.

6. In professional development, there’s a gap between interest and budget.

While nearly all survey respondents (92%) say they are interested in professional/education training, only 65% of respondents have a budget for it. Respondents’ top areas of interest are data-driven decision making, marketing, communications, and strategic leadership.

Takeaway: Share highlights of the report with your leadership team. Invite a discussion about the changing role of admission and the ways you can continue to develop your skills and knowledge.

7. Turnover is ticking up.

Only about half of survey respondents (52%) see themselves staying in international school admission in five years. This number was 58% in the previous survey conducted in 2016. Slightly more than a quarter (27%) see themselves moving into headship/leadership.

Takeaway: Considering the impact of a loss of institutional history and internal and external relationships, what systems can you put in place to retain staff? What policies can you document to ensure limited impact on enrollment during a transition?

8. A wave of new staffers will need training and on-boarding.










Compared to the previous survey, more respondents are very new to the profession, with a quarter indicating 0-3 years of experience. More than half (57%) are new to their current schools, with a tenure of six or fewer years.

Takeaway: If you have very new staff members, what are you doing to orient them and give them big-picture context? As you consider hiring, what new or different skills might be needed in your admission office — perhaps database management, marketing, cultural competency?








9. Word of mouth is king.

International schools rely heavily on word of mouth marketing: Nearly all rated as extremely/very effective current and former family referrals.

Takeaway: Work to formalize all-important word of mouth referrals. In the report, read tips for doing so.

10. Websites, social media, and video are increasingly important.

Websites were ranked as extremely/very effective by about three-quarters of respondents. The perceived effectiveness of campus videos and social media has grown significantly compared to the survey conducted in 2016 —from 49% to 56% and 32% to 53%, respectively. Schools are taking advantage of these relatively inexpensive tools to tell the story of life on campus.

Takeaway: Analyze your website: Does it truly reflect your school culture? Can families easily find what they need? View it from numerous perspectives, e.g., a first-time international school family, a local family, and an experienced global family. In the report, read tips for improving your landing pages.

Feature image: Kings College International School, Bangkok, opening in September 2020.


The EMA 2019 International School Admission Industry Report is based on a survey of nearly 400 professionals working in international school admission. Questions addressed school characteristics, operations, and activities relevant to admission as well as the characteristics and intentions of the admission professionals themselves.

For more about the EMA see

To read the report see: