A growing wave of international students has been swelling the ranks of students at American colleges and universities. From 2008 to 2016, a new Pew Research Center analysis shows, the number of foreign students enrolling in the U.S. more than doubled, from 179,000 to almost 364,000. Overall college enrollment increased by just 3.4 percent during the same period. In 2016, foreign students spent around $15.5 billion on higher education, the Pew report says.
Now, the tide is ebbing. Of more than 2,000 colleges and universities in the annual “Open Doors” survey, 45 percent reported a drop in new international students in the fall of 2017.
What drove the dramatic growth in international student enrollment?
In 2008, at the beginning of the Great Recession, public universities depended less on tuition — which accounted for just 35.8 percent of their funding — and more on state support. Then, as states tightened their budgets, universities found a panacea: Accepting more international students, who pay higher out-of-state tuition, allowed them to make up the deficit. The National Bureau of Economic Research found that a 10 percent decrease in state appropriations was associated with an average 12 percent increase in enrollment of international undergraduate students at public research universities.
China supplies the most international students (30 percent), followed by India (18 percent) and South Korea (6 percent). Among Chinese students, demand for an American education is high because of the intense competition for college in their own country. In China, of the nearly 10 million students who sit for university exams, each year, only two-thirds will secure a place at a Chinese college, and only 3 or 4 percent will reach the “top tier,” author Lenora Chu tells Inside Higher Ed. So they turn to U.S. schools instead.
The cloudy forecast for international student enrollment
The surge in international students is now subsiding, with an average 2017 enrollment decline of 7 percent. Why? In this snapshot survey, universities named these reasons:
- Challenges, denials and delays in the visa application process (68 percent)
- The U.S. social and political environment (57 percent)
- Cost of tuition and fees (57 percent)
- Competition from universities abroad (54 percent)
President Donald Trump’s attempts to ban visitors from some predominantly Muslim countries, as well as incidents of violence and hatred directed toward foreigners, have caused many prospective international students to rethink their decision to come to the U.S. “At the moment, the United States is the leading destination for international students, but we are losing market share,” Esther Brimmer, the executive director of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, told NPR. “Increasingly, students are recognizing they do have choices — some students may choose to go to Australia or Canada or other countries that also have excellent institutions. We may be losing them for years.”
Not all institutions are seeing equal losses, however. Highly selective universities report continued growth in international student enrollment. Colleges on both coasts saw small declines, between 1 and 7 percent, while those in the middle of the country experienced 16 to 20 percent decreases in the fall of 2017.
International student recruitment strategies
What can colleges do to stay competitive and attract a greater share of international enrollments? There’s no universal solution, but here’s what some are trying.
Some colleges and universities see a need to offer tuition discounts to international students, challenging the longstanding practice of charging full price. George Mason University, for example, has begun offering aid to foreign students with stellar academic performance. “The international student marketplace has become more competitive and more savvy as it relates to American pricing differences, and universities are responding in kind,” David Burge, George Mason’s vice president for enrollment management, told Inside Higher Ed. The university is careful, however, not to hand out so much aid that international students would pay less than in-state Virginia students.
Others are considering changing testing requirements. Since 2015, the University of San Francisco has made it easier for star students in China to apply without jumping through the standard hoops, such as SAT and TOEFL testing. Instead, Chinese students may apply based on the gaokao, the tough test used by Chinese universities, as well as an in-person English interview, conducted in China. This strategy has been effective, the university says, admitting more than two dozen top students each fall who have chosen diverse fields for their majors.
And hundreds of universities are participating in the #YouAreWelcomeHere campaign, described as “a message of welcome from U.S. higher education to international students around the world.” Campaign organizers exhort universities to repeat the message on social media, in videos and on banners. Jessica Sandberg, the director of international admissions at Temple and the person leading the campaign, says it’s meant to combat perceptions of xenophobia and instability by showing international students what U.S. college campuses are really like: diverse, fun and welcoming.