Why would you go to the Middle East?

Given the scope of recent headlines and political unrest, many international recruiters may be considering skipping the Middle East. However, this does present a multitude of opportunities for the universities that choose to invest in the region.

Several years ago, I was asked by a college vice president, “Why go to the Middle East?” This institution had a limited budget to grow new markets but understood the benefit and need to diversify into the Middle East. This institution did not have any experience or history within this region. My response was, “to go where money doesn’t matter.” This was not the response the vice president was expecting, but it clearly struck a cord and certainly drove the conversation further.

For many families, the affordability factor of higher education in the United States is a major consideration in determining where their children will go to study. In several cases, students from the Middle East have access to government-sponsored programs that will cover all, or most of their education and related costs. Therefore, price point has not been the chief deterrent. Instead, all too often it’s the brand, or perceived status of the institution. Institutions that are known in the region have a much better chance of attracting, engaging, and enrolling students.

The most challenging student to recruit in a new market is the first student. A student who finds both academic and personal success at an institution will be the best advocate for your institution. Culturally, you will find that this student’s positive experience will result in added visibility, increased applications and higher enrollments. First from brothers and sisters, and then cousins, and then other extended members of the family, and beyond.

The Saudi Arabian King Abuallah Scholarship Program (KASP) is perhaps the best known of these sponsor programs. KASP’s main goal is to equip students with knowledge and skills needed to be future world leaders. Some of the other goals of the program are to foster patriotic commitment, cultural exchange, mutual understanding and intellectual development. The impact of KASP cannot be understated, as its economic impact in 2015 was $1.7 billion in the U.S. economy.

In 2011, Saudi Arabia sent 22,704 students to study in the United States. This number rose to 59,945 in 2015. Recently, the future of the KASP program has been in question. There have been announcements that indicate there will be a sharp decrease in the number of students to be funded, and only schools deemed in the top 200 will be approved for new degree-seeking students. Students currently in the United States appear to be grandfathered in, however the future for students who are in the U.S. for intensive English training and who may not receive offers of admission from the “top schools” remains in question.

Kuwait also has a government-sponsored program that is smaller in scope, but does allow for its students to study at approved schools in the United States. In 2011, Kuwait sent 2,998 students to the United States. This number grew to an all-time high in 2015 with a total of 9,034 students.

For colleges and universities looking to break into these markets and hoping to be included on some of these approved “lists,” it can be a confusing and ambiguous process Kuwait does have information regarding the guidelines for inclusion on their approved list (check kuwaitculture.com).

A great way to start the process of getting your institution to be recognized and added onto the approved list of schools is by showing a commitment to the region. Grow a track record of investing in the region by face-to-face travel, outreach to promote cultural understanding and meetings in Washington D.C. with educational leaders and embassy officials. This sounds like an easy undertaking and in some cases it can be, however the process can take a long time to become approved. It’s also important to know many of the sponsored student programs are designed to include only those majors that are deemed vital to the future growth of the issuing country’s economy. Many STEM fields are included on these approved lists, but not exclusively. Professional accreditation also plays a significant role in determining which schools and majors are to be funded.

It is also very important to understand the demographics on the ground in the Middle Eastern countries. Many students whom you would encounter there will likely be members of various expat communities. These students have family roots in the Middle Eastern countries for generations. In most cases they would not be eligible for inclusion in the government sponsorship programs, but based on their families situation, they may be a perfect fit for U.S. institutions.

I have found traveling around the world to be very enriching and educational. I have learned about many cultures and answers to many of life’s questions. The question isn’t “why go to the Middle East?” … it’s “why not go?”


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