The International Bubble

American colleges and universities can't count on ever-increasing numbers of international students, panelists warn.

September 26, 2016
Word cloud presented at NACAC

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- This year’s charged political climate in the United States could seriously hurt colleges’ and universities’ ability to recruit international students, according to high school counselors and admissions officers.

By one unscientific measure, 39 percent of counselors serving students from outside the U.S. said that the result of the U.S. election in November could change their students’ willingness to attend a university in the United States. The number is particularly eye opening for U.S. higher education leaders who increasingly look overseas for students who can fill classroom seats and pay high tuition bills.

The potential problems convincing international students to study in the United States were on display Friday at the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s 2016 national conference. A group of admissions officers and others involved in international recruitment held a session describing trends that could point to an international student bubble that’s ready to burst -- just like the housing bubble burst in the United States last decade.

The group conducted an informal political climate survey of 214 high school counselors, independent counselors, U.S. university representatives and foreign university representatives -- all based outside the U.S or serving non-Americans. In addition to the 39 percent of counselors saying the election could influence their students’ university choices, the survey found 64 percent of counselors saw an increase in the number of traditionally U.S.-bound students considering non-U.S. options. Reasons included costs, cited by 80 percent of respondents, along with guns and safety, each cited by about a third of respondents.

But concerns over the U.S. political climate were also illustrated by written-in survey responses. Meghan McHale Dangremond, associate director of admissions at Tufts University, showed a word cloud visualization that displayed terms most commonly cited in written-in responses.

Most-mentioned terms included Trump, concern, anti, work, Muslim, family and visa. Dangremond said she presented the word cloud in the shape of an elephant to convey the elephant in the room, the fact the talked-about Donald Trump is the Republican nominee for president and as a nod to the mascot of her employer Tufts University.

"This is what we’re hearing, and this is what they’re hearing,” Dangremond said. “These are the conversations that they’re having on the ground. Our election process is on the mouths of 17-year-olds around the world.”

Dangremond warned against brushing off those concerns under the idea that admissions officers and the colleges and universities they represent tend to be liberal as a group -- or under the idea that the election has yet to be decided.

“Some of the concerns that we heard expressed basically told us that even if this election doesn’t go for the elephant in the room, the damage is done,” she said. “There are perceptions about the United States that have been plastered all over the media that have been made very public that are not flattering.”

Other factors deterring students from coming to institutions in the United States included difficulties in applying to U.S. colleges -- a perception of many hoops to jump through with standardized tests and applications.

Circumstances in other countries could also cut into the number of students studying in the United States. Economies in some key countries have slowed, countries have moved to cut scholarships for students studying in the United States, and countries have tried to build up their own higher educational offerings.

“You’ve got a lot of branch campuses that are opening up in and around the world,” said Ffiona Rees, senior associate director for international admission at the University of California, Los Angeles. “You’re getting regional hubs for American-style education.”

For example, the South Korean economy has slowed, Rees said. The middle class is finding it harder to pay for education in the United States, and there are more educational options within the region.

There is also a change in the way some job markets are perceived. Ten years ago, the perception in Japan and Korea was that a U.S. education opened doors and made it easier to get a job in a student’s home country, Rees said. That perception is now flipped -- the idea today is that students need to go to a top local university to have a leg up in the job market.

Japan stands as historical precedent showing international students can stop coming to the United States. In 1995, Japan was the top country sending students to the United States with 45,531 students. In 2015, just 19,064 students were at U.S. colleges and universities, according to data from the Institute of International Education.

Still, the number of international students has risen sharply in the last 20 years thanks in large part to China. There were 39,613 Chinese students studying in the United States in 1995. In 2015 there were 304,040.

Some signs indicate that the massive growth of Chinese students might not hold into the future. There have been moves to downgrade English in the college entrance exam called the Gaokao. Panelists also pointed to a general growth of higher ed options in China and elsewhere in Asia.

International students are increasingly looking at Canada, the United Kingdom, and Europe, said Kristin Dreazen, an educational consultant based in London. Universities in numerous other countries are also trying to recruit students from beyond their nations’ borders.

Dreazen pointed to Canada as a place that is attractive to international students in part because it is open to international students.

“It is very immigration friendly to international students, so students who are on a student visa have a very clearly defined path to permanent residency, the opportunity to work for a significant amount of time after they’ve graduated,” she said.

Currency exchange rates and length of education can also make other countries attractive, Dreazen said. Simply put, it takes fewer than four years to get an undergraduate degree in some countries. That cuts costs for students. So do exchange rates, which can make already-expensive U.S. higher education seem pricier while making education in other countries seem less expensive.

Meanwhile, funding for international students is running into some limits. Although many international students are self-funded, a substantial portion receive funding from scholarship programs, said Becky Konowicz, director of international admission at Santa Clara University.

The scholarship landscape has changed in some countries, she said. Significantly, the Saudi Arabian government has made changes to its foreign scholarship program, prompting American universities to brace for declines in students from the country. Brazil has also cut back.

“Part of this is there has been no replacement,” Konowicz said. “Something to think about as these programs disappear is what’s going to replace them for capacity for full-pay students?”

The changes to Saudi Arabian and Brazilian scholarship programs came amidst economic headwinds in those countries. Economic issues could also affect the Chinese market’s future, said Johanna Fishbein, university advisor at the United World College of SouthEast Asia’s Dover campus in Singapore.

“There is this perception that the Chinese economy is growing and that there is going to be plenty of money left for Chinese students, but actually, some people say that no, it’s really neither a boom nor a bust, it’s just very stagnant,” she said. “Is it a market that we can see growing? Not necessarily. We certainly can’t rely on that happening.”

In order to get a visa to study in the U.S., students need to show that their families have funding available, Fishbein said. So economic fluctuations can have real impacts on U.S. student populations if they hurt families’ savings.

U.S. colleges and universities can still deploy strategies to survive changes, Fishbein said. Colleges and universities can diversify, looking outside of the countries they have traditionally cultivated.

Pathway programs can be useful if universities invest proper attention to them and make sure they support international students, Fishbein said. International students can be interested in higher education connected to employment opportunities. And colleges and universities can evaluate their application processes and requirements.

“We’ve definitely seen when universities do make a choice to go test-optional, it certainly is perceived very well on the international side,” Fishbein said.


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