For U.S. educational institutions that increasingly depend on revenue from foreign students, the past four years have been a challenge, with U.S.-China relations under the Trump administration hitting rock bottom and many Chinese students dissuaded from applying at American schools for a myriad of reasons, ranging from concerns about gun violence to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
China leads as the top source of foreign students in the U.S., with nearly 370,000 students at American institutions last year, or more than a third of the total. Chinese students have become a critical source of tuition revenues for U.S. schools, and represent an important group of consumers segment for the businesses in surrounding communities, from car dealerships to malls and luxury boutiques.
Recent actions such as the U.S. State Department’s moves this past summer to revoke the student visas of more than 1,000 Chinese nationals on the grounds that they were “high-risk graduate students and research scholars” only served to inflame tensions, with China’s state-run media publishing editorials that could convince some students that they would only encounter a hostile educational environment in the United States.
However, there is now hope that the incoming Biden administration may heed the calls from university leaders to be more welcoming to foreign students who can bring millions in much-needed revenues. There are also signs that Biden may move to grant green cards to foreign graduates of American doctoral programs under the rationale that “losing these highly trained workers to foreign economies is a disservice to our own economic competitiveness.”
How much overall relations between the United States and China will improve under the Biden campaign remains to be seen (it would be difficult, though not impossible, for them to get much worse.) But for schools looking to attract more Chinese students over the next four years, the old ways of courting applicants will not be enough. Just like global brands and cultural institutions, which have sought to introduce (or reintroduce) themselves to the Chinese market through the savvy use of content-commerce strategies such as branded content, collaborations with local brands, or livestreaming, American schools have the opportunity to leverage similar techniques to entice more students (and their parents) to give the United States another look.
Before Covid-19 swept the world, the topic of overseas study had already entered the world of content-commerce in China, with the California-set television drama “Over the Sea I Come to You” (带着爸爸去留学, literally, “Taking Dad to Study Abroad”) attracting more than two dozen brand sponsors, including Audi, Coca-Cola, GE Appliances, and Procter & Gamble. The show was called out by many viewers for its sometimes awkward and obvious insertion of sponsor products into the storyline, but it also highlighted the potential for educational institutions to serve as objects of audience interest.
Online education companies have been among the first to adopt content-commerce marketing approaches, with Tencent’s Ketang jumping on the “cloud living” bandwagon early this year with its online education-themed brand film and Xueersi Online School (学而思网校) launching a multi-pronged integration last year with the high school drama “Growing Pain” (少年派).
American universities now have at their disposal a number of marketing tactics that only a few years ago were in their infancy, among them custom reality shows, livestreaming and short video, and brand collaborations. It is more than feasible that we could see a particularly savvy American institution make a full-court press in China with the aim of attracting more foreign students in the next couple of years, creating content for a youth-focused platform like Bilibili (which has seen interest in educational content skyrocket this year) while cultivating or working with a popular U.S.-based Chinese student influencer or celebrity attendee, sponsoring a streaming reality program (with ample opportunities to purchase branded merch), and launching a collaboration with a popular Chinese fashion or F&B brand.
This kind of marketing may have seemed far-fetched just a few years ago, but for an institution needing foreign student applicants to make up for a tough 2020, there is no good reason not to take advantage of these and other proven content-commerce avenues.