The International Recruitment Roller Coaster

Colleges need to make the case for recruiting international students once again, writes Anna Wise.

July 27, 2020

It is no secret that this has been a rough couple of years for international admissions. Back in 2016, right before Donald Trump was elected, my then-boss and I joked that if he became president, we would both likely be fired because of the decline in international students. Donald Trump did become president, but we still kept our jobs. Nevertheless, the field of international admissions shifted, and trends already bubbling beneath the surface accelerated. The election was another step in a series of events culminating in a 10 percent decline in new enrollment numbers between 2015 and 2018.

Of course, international student enrollment does not operate in a vacuum, and these shifts were not due solely to the election of Trump. The United States’ international education market share had been trending downward from 28 percent of the global market in 2001 to 22 percent in 2018. The election of 2016 only exacerbated the perception that the United States was becoming an increasingly unfriendly host location for international students and immigrants, but there were many additional factors affecting the decline, including:

  1. Governments’ strategic plans for international education growth -- notably China, Australia, Malaysia and Canada -- leading to those governments expanding visa policies with incentives for international students and their families.
  2. The growth of countries’ higher education infrastructure and capacity, resulting in a decline or cessation of their scholarship programs for studying abroad, as witnessed in Brazil and Saudi Arabia.
  3. International crises leading to currency fluctuations combined with a strengthening U.S. dollar, raising the actual cost of a U.S. degree.
  4. Growing international economies attracting international students and becoming education host destinations as opposed to purely sending countries -- the most notable of these being China.

And then came COVID-19.

Suddenly, international travel became impossible. Colleges moved online. There were ominous predictions of a 25 percent decline in international student enrollments at universities and tangible fears that if colleges continue to operate online, students, both domestic and international, may take a gap year or not return or even be forced to depart the country if their program goes online. All of this has contributed to the shifts in international student mobility, including recent polling that indicates the United States is the preferred study destination of only 9 percent of globally mobile students. Amid the chaos that is this ever-evolving crisis, it is hard to find the silver lining.

Angel Pérez, new CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, has described the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to “reinvent enrollment and college access in America and across the globe.” But how do we reimagine a field, confronted as we are by obstacles that are out of our control? What can we learn from the past that can help us move forward?

After Sept. 11, we developed a greater understanding of the importance of international education as a national security policy. We were reminded that international students are valuable assets in national security and diplomacy. Students who are educated in the United States experience the best of our culture, people and values before returning to their home countries to positions of power within industry and government. If we serve our students well, they become leaders in their fields and hold positive attitudes toward our country and culture.

After the election of 2016, we learned the importance of the economic argument, communicating the financial impact of international students on the economy. We publicized the facts that the education of international students supports over 450,000 U.S. jobs and that education is the fourth-largest U.S. export. New reports linking employability to students with global capabilities and emphasizing that 25 percent of the founders of U.S. companies valued over $1 billion first came to the U.S. as international students have only strengthened the economic argument. Our challenge: to get our neighbors and our government representatives to recognize and act on this information.

Confronted by a global pandemic, as well as a recession and a long-overdue reconciliation with racial justice issues, perhaps the opportunity in this current crisis is indeed access. Never before have there been so many opportunities to connect virtually with institutions and their admissions officers. And, in part because of the pandemic, testing has increasingly become optional at colleges and universities. However, the surrounding context of additional immigration restrictions, a struggling response to the pandemic, consulate closures and an increase in tensions over race relations reminds us that we must combine the focus on access with responsibility and active support for our international communities.

Our ability to protect our students and find silver linings was put to the test by the recent guidance from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, reversing temporary measures that allowed students to maintain their immigration status if their institution transitioned to online instruction during the pandemic. The response from the higher education community was swift and decisive: this new guidance would have put institutions and students at risk by pressuring colleges to reopen and stay open this fall, regardless of the public health risks related to doing so. Seventeen states and hundreds of universities filed lawsuits questioning the legality of ICE’s policy. The widespread condemnation of this recent ruling included arguments about the economic and cultural implications, moral values and competitive workforce development, and its lack of precedence.

When the policy was announced, international educators were ready with tool kits developed from experiencing previous crises and were able to advocate forcefully enough that the government rescinded its guidance under pressure. While this was unequivocally a success story, the damage to the nation’s reputation abroad has also been exacerbated by the initial policy announcement of this policy.

The challenges facing our field are likely to grow in the post-COVID-19 world and foreseeable future. Now, more than ever, our educational communities must come together to turn these lessons and silver linings into strategies that will protect our international students and scholars, our campuses, our communities, and our world. Armed with the lessons from the past, our collective response can turn this crisis into an opportunity and begin the work necessary to regain our status as the preferred host country for the world’s best and brightest students.


Anna Wise is associate dean of admission and director of international recruitment at Hamilton College.



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