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My clients around the world are asking me this very question. Within two days of the election, I had a European schedule a call to talk about how/if they could handle messaging to attract US students who may not want to study in the US or international students who may be looking at other options.
It is a sensitive issue, regardless of who you were rooting for. In this post I will share what primary risks might lie ahead based on what I’m hearing from folks around the world – and what US institutions can do to respond. In the short-term, institutions can take actions to maintain their yield rates for fall 2017. We are likely facing the longer-term project of demonstrating how US universities intend to keep their doors wide open to diverse international students.
Risk 1: The U.S. is perceived as less open and welcoming to people who are not straight, Christian, white men.
Again, I’m talking about perception here, but there’s no doubt that the rhetoric of the recent election and the growing alt-right movement in the US could give pause to international students, particularly those who are identifiably different from supposed “norm.” I’m talking about students who may wear a hijab, who are anything other than white, or, speak with an accent.
What can a university do?
When you click on “International Students” at most university websites, you’re led straight to a daunting jumble of information about visas and compliance. I’m not saying that’s not important, but before they decide to apply, it may be good to ensure the message is coming across loud and clear that international students are valuable and welcome members of your academic community. In many countries, a letter from the university president really helps to underline this point – and certainly testimonials from students, faculty, and administrators talking about why international students are far more valuable than their tuition dollars would be a great idea regardless of the current climate.
Risk 2: The US is perceived as increasingly dangerous.
Even before the elections, the US had already started to seem a little dangerous with international press carrying stories about campus shootings and students carrying guns on campus. The rash of post-election hate crimes has likely done little to improve this image. Regardless of your personal stance on guns, they can seem frightening to people who are not used to them being so widespread, which is the case in many other countries. Also, and perhaps even more importantly, any hate crimes carried out against international students or people from their country are likely to make the press in that country. This can make the US feel unsafe and (see above) unwelcoming.
What can a university do?
Universities generally have detailed plans in place to deal with on-campus violence and hate crimes, but you may want to also consider how you can reach out to international press, if necessary. Again, having your PR bases covered in major recruitment markets is a good idea in case anything happens – good or bad – that you need to publicize quickly abroad. Most importantly, and this hopefully goes without saying, make sure international students are as protected as everyone else on your campus and that any actions taken to scare or injure specific groups of students are dealt with swiftly.
Risk 3: Our geo-political landscape shifts and relations with important recruitment markets go sour.
There is always an inherent risk in international recruitment that what happens in the big political world can impact your campus – whether that’s a dramatic change in exchange rates, international governments changing their scholarship programs, or even natural disasters. In the days since the election, it seems as if new risks are cropping up from having to take a harsher stance on Russian meddling in the election to a questioning of the One China policy. Could this escalate to the point where certain governments would make it difficult for their students to study in the US? Hopefully not, but it brings up an important point about diversification regardless.
What can a university do?
We’ve already seen examples of what can happens when institutions are too reliant on students from a particular country or region such as the fallout from the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s, the much more recent drop in Saudi students, and questions about the wisdom of over-reliance on China as a recruitment market. While it’s difficult to move away from the places where there has been government funding to study in the US or markets that are “easy” to attract large numbers, not having a diverse international student body can be risky and lessens the academic benefits of having multiple points of view in the classroom. Lack of international student diversity is probably not even all that great for the international students themselves, and we’ve see how many Chinese students have already begun to complain that they may as well not have left their home countries. It takes time to enter new markets, but the longer it’s postponed, the more other institutions may be establishing footholds in important upcoming markets – and the more your recruitment goals could be impacted by troubles in any bilateral relationships.
Risk 4: Visa policy changes allow fewer international students and/or make it more difficult for them to stay in the country following graduation.
As just one example based on campaign promises, students from countries that have been “compromised by terrorism” (the exact list to be determined) will almost certainly have a more difficult time obtaining visas. Additionally, the president-elect has made statements about limiting the numbers of H1-B visas and it’s not clear how future policies may impact programs like Optional Practical Training. Any perceived threat to the possibility of employment in the US following graduation would significantly impact the segment of international students who come here to pursue the full American dream – or at least get some work experience before returning home.
What can a university do?
For one, it’s going to be extremely important to stay on top of these policies and consider the broader context of how they may impact your international students. Any relevant changes to visa policies should be communicated quickly and clearly to prospects, applicants, and current students – and you should be ready to answer questions before any concrete changes have even happened. It will likely become even more critical to provide evidence and stories about how your programs can help international students find great jobs back home – and to reassure prospects (and their parents) about how they will be able to get work experience in the US during or immediately following their studies.
Looking at these risks may seem overly cautious or negative, but I believe that this is exactly the moment where international student mobility is more important than ever. The US still has one of the best higher education systems in the world, and it will remain attractive to growing numbers of international students – let’s just hope we can make them continue to feel like they are a critical and welcome part of our overall community both on and off campus.
Megan Brenn-White has nearly two decades of experience in international education and content development, most of which has been helping higher education institutions communicate more effectively online with international audiences. She founded The Brenn-White Group in 2010.