What’s in a Name: Are Your Program Titles Hitting the Mark with International Students?

"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” Juliet proposed in Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare’s implication? That names don’t matter or affect what things really are. While this is a noble proposition, it’s also one that doesn’t necessarily hold up in every situation. Case in point? The degree to which titles matter when marketing academic programs to international students.

Here’s a closer look at the issue, along with several things to keep in mind when developing and creating marketing programs designed to adequately speak to your international student prospects.

Talking Titles: A Fine Line

With colleges and universities all over the world competing for the best and brightest students, many are taking creative measures boost their numbers. One tactic? Interesting course titles, course descriptions, and program names.

When successfully deployed, this strategy can be effective. Many professors say the use of catchy titles helps their courses stand out in course catalogs. But others insist that creative naming walks a fine line between enticing and estranging potential students.

Reflecting on his own (failed) attempt to be clever with a course title which resulted in low course registration numbers, English professor Ryan Cordell wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Looking at the course title again, I realize it was probably opaque to students not in the know about the course’s content, particularly if they didn’t read the course description. And we know that many, many students register for courses without reading course descriptions.”

When it comes to developing and marketing programs, meanwhile, the challenges -- and opportunities -- amplify. Why? Because the name of your program can make or break your international enrollments.

The Trouble with Inside Jokes

Everyone loves a good inside joke, right? Well everyone, that is, except an outsider. And isn’t that what international students inherently are -- at least at the beginning? At the same time, isn’t it the role of international marketers and recruiters to offset this phenomenon?

Perhaps The Guardian put it best in summing up the early international student experience: “We know starting university can be a stressful time for many – new surroundings, new peers and a high level of academic expectation makes even the most confident student a little anxious. But think how much greater this is for those students whose main concern is not only finding their way around campus, but getting to grips with a different language, culture and set of customs.”

A clearly-delivered program title not only helps attract students, but also lays the groundwork for a successful experience. So while fun, inside joke-type program titles and descriptions may or may not play well with domestic students who understand both the references and the system, they may well have an unintended effect on international students. The takeaway? Naming your program something obtuse or “clever” can be akin to rolling in the welcome mat.

Best Practices for Marketing to International Students

All of which begs the question: If catchy program titles aren’t the way to go, what is? For starters, including the degree in your program is essential. While many international students are in it for a broad range of advantages, others are in it for the degree. Putting the degree front and center -- examples include MA in Chemistry, MBA in Corporate Governance, PGDip in International Law -- ensures that your program will stand out from the crowd in the eyes of degree-seekers. But don't go overboard - incluing the degree specialization is grand, but tacking on branded terms, funding options or modes of study will only clutter the title and make it difficult for the right students to hone in on your program's core value.

Also, maintaining awareness of international standards, internationally recognized degrees, and equivalents in international systems between countries and regions can help you further craft your program title and marketing materials to best reach your target audience.

Bridging the Gap

All of this may be preaching to the choir: Most higher education marketing professionals are already keenly aware of the hurdles involved with recruiting international students. Academics, however, may be focused elsewhere.

The solution? Marketing to international students isn’t just a matter of breaking down the barriers between international students and recruitment offices, but also about opening a dialog between international recruitment offices and academic departments in order to facilitate true understanding of the issue and its challenges. The result? Program names which not only articulate relevant and accurate information, but also compel international students to enroll.

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” Juliet proposed in Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare’s implication? That names don’t matter or affect what things really are. While this is a noble proposition, it’s also one that doesn’t necessarily hold up in every situation. Case in point? The degree to which titles matter when marketing academic programs to international students. Here's a closer look at the issue and some tips for marketing to international students.