International Enrollments: From Flat to Way Down

Amid concerns about visas and the political environment, some institutions are maintaining or even increasing their enrollment numbers, but many report drops, some by as much as 30 to 50 percent for new students.

September 5, 2017
 

After years in which American universities enjoyed steady growth in numbers of foreign students, many institutions expect international enrollments to be flat or down -- in some cases significantly -- this fall.

In interviews with officials at about two dozen universities, no consistent, unifying trends emerge, but some are reporting a slowdown in the flow of students from China and declines in graduate students from India, two countries that together account for nearly half of all international students in the U.S. Universities also continue to feel the effects of the declines in enrollments of Saudi Arabian students that began in 2016, after the Saudi government tightened up some of the terms of its massive scholarship program.

At many colleges, declines in international enrollment not only detract from the educational experience, they also impact the bottom line. At many colleges, most or all international students pay full price for tuition -- and, at public colleges, they typically pay higher out-of-state tuition rates -- so even modest declines may still translate to significant financial impacts for colleges.

As such, officials at U.S. colleges have been anxiously anticipating this fall’s international enrollment numbers. A national survey conducted by six higher education groups last spring portended a mixed picture, with 38 percent of institutions reporting a decrease in international applications, 35 percent reporting an increase and 27 percent reporting no change.

There are lots of variables that can lead to shifts in international student numbers: national policies or demographic shifts in key source countries, changes to scholarship programs or a country’s own higher education capacity, and increasing competition for students from countries like Canada, where universities have reported surges in international applications and pledged enrollments even as many American institutions have been struggling.

But on top of all that, many in international education have reported hearing increased concerns from prospective students this year about their personal safety and whether they will feel welcome in the U.S. Universities also fielded concerns from prospective students about their ability to get a visa and whether there could be changes to the optional practical training (OPT) and H-1B visa programs, which provide avenues for international students to stay in the U.S. and work after they graduate (it’s important to note that while President Trump has ordered a multiagency review of the H-1B program, there have been no changes to H-1B or OPT benefits to date).

At some universities projected declines in international enrollment are modest to moderate. Western Michigan University is expecting a 4 percent downturn. Missouri State University is projecting a decline of about 10 percent, with the biggest drop being in students from Saudi Arabia.

Others are seeing more substantial drops. Indiana State University experienced a 50 percent drop in new international students and its total international enrollment is down by about 20 percent. What’s especially worrisome, Indiana State’s president said, is that the drop in international students isn’t attributable to one or two countries but is across the map.

“Countries that provide us with a sizable number of students, such as India, China, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Korea -- they’re all down,” said President Daniel J. Bradley.

Indiana State isn’t hurting for students -- its total enrollment is at a record high this year -- but the drop in international students is still going to hurt.

“Those students bring significant revenue. I would guess that it takes two U.S.-based students to replace them in terms of revenue,” Bradley said. “We also miss the diversity that they bring to the campus.”

Another university seeing sharp declines in international enrollment is the University of Florida, which has 1,273 new international students this fall, compared to 1,883 last fall. That figure includes both undergraduate and graduate students, but the majority of Florida’s international students study at the graduate level.

Florida President W. Kent Fuchs described the more than 30 percent decline as “precipitous” in an address to the Faculty Senate in August. “My concern is that the U.S. risks losing its position as the destination of choice for the world’s very best graduate and professional students. We must, as a nation and university, tell the world that we welcome international students and that they have wonderful opportunities here. Our university’s future depends on this -- and so does our nation’s,” Fuchs said.

Susanne Hill, executive director of the University of Florida International Center, said Florida saw declines at various steps in the admissions process. “Our number of admitted students decreased by 23 percent between 2016 and 2017,” Hill said. “Of the admitted students, a lower percentage followed through on the paperwork to receive an I-20 (37 percent vs. 42 percent)” -- the I-20 being the document verifying university admittance that a prospective student needs to apply for a visa. “[Of] those who did receive an I-20 from us, a lower ratio showed up on campus (82 percent vs. 91 percent).”

“The major decline we are seeing is in the Indian population,” said Hill, who added that Florida’s College of Engineering is most affected.

Northern Kentucky University is also seeing a drop in its number of Indian graduate students, following a 50 percent decline in applications. NKU is also seeing a drop in international freshmen, intensive English students and conditionally admitted students. On the other hand, the number of international transfer students is up, including a larger-than-expected number of transfers from Saudi Arabia.

NKU was hit hard last year by the changes to the Saudi scholarship program: at its peak, Saudi students made up about three-quarters of the university’s international enrollment. “I do think we’re finding strength in greater diversity, and as we rebuild our international enrollment we’re not going to be as exposed to risk as we were,” said Francois LeRoy, the executive director of Northern Kentucky's Center for Global Engagement and International Affairs. “I think we’re going to be able to stabilize that enrollment, but there are still other things, of course, things that we cannot control that drive a lot of what we do.”

LeRoy said that many Indian students, for example, seem to be concerned about possible changes to OPT and the H-1B visa program. “Many of them do aspire to secure employment after graduation, and because there’s a great deal of talk about cutting back on the H-1B, a lot shy away from applying to the United States,” he said. “They’re not confident that in the time it’s going to take for them to complete their education that changes will not have occurred by then.”

“It is kind of disconcerting, because we do feel that a lot of this is out of our power to change,” LeRoy said. “We’re definitely retooling and rethinking our enrollment strategy in general, but so much of that seems to be tied to perceptions -- perceptions of the United States outside the United States -- and we have no control over that.”

A Mixed Picture

Not all universities are projecting enrollment declines. Some of the top destination universities for foreign students -- members of the small club that enroll more than 10,000 international students -- expect flat international enrollments or increases. New York University, which hosts more international students than any other American university, estimates that a record 21 percent of the freshman class at its Washington Square campus has primary citizenship outside the U.S., compared to 20 percent last year and 19 percent the year before that. The University of California, Los Angeles, doesn’t start classes until the end of September but, according to a university spokesman, isn’t expecting “any meaningful changes” in its international enrollment at this point. Martin McFarlane, the director of International Student Scholars and Services at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, another leading university in terms of international enrollment, is expecting the university’s undergraduate and graduate international enrollment to “increase slightly” this fall.

Plenty of other universities that aren’t such big brand names overseas are also anticipating flat international enrollments, or even increases. Among the universities projecting stable or relatively stable international enrollments are Full Sail University, in Florida; Lynn University, also in Florida, which reports a decline of fewer than 10 students; and Pennsylvania State University’s Harrisburg campus. West Virginia University checked in 366 international students this fall -- 269 on F-1 visas and 97 on J-1 exchange visas -- up 59 percent from 230 last year.

Ron Cushing, director of international services at the University of Cincinnati, reported that over all, new international enrollments are flat -- for the third straight year the university checked in more than 1,000 new international students -- but new enrollments are up at the undergraduate level (by 15 percent) and down at the graduate level (by 9 percent).

Michael Beseda, the vice provost for strategic enrollment at the University of San Francisco, said that new international undergraduate enrollment is steady there, while new international graduate enrollment is down by about 6 percent.

So by no means is the downward trend universal or across the board. But it’s notable that many institutions are seeing declines after years in which universities were in growth mode. In a statement, Troy University, in Alabama, said its international enrollment, at 921, is down 100 students from last fall. Karissa Peckham, the vice president for international enrollment at the University of Bridgeport, in Connecticut, hesitated to give a percentage estimate because the institution is still checking students in, but said she expects international enrollment to be a “bit down,” due to declines in numbers of Indian and Nepali students coming for master’s programs.

“My sense is that we will see a limited decrease” in total international students, said Pieter Vermeulen, the director of international recruitment at the University of North Texas, which saw a downward trend in international graduate applications, mostly due to declines from India and China.

Patty Croom, the director of international admissions, recruitment and student success at Michigan State University, expects the number of new international freshmen to be down by about 8 percent, following declines in the application pool from China and Saudi Arabia. “The rate of increase in China has slowed,” said Croom. She said that with increased competition it’s unlikely the university will return to its peak number of applicants from China -- “which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you’re getting the right students, that’s what matters.”

Students from North Carolina State University's intensive English programAmong other land-grant universities, North Carolina State University had a 5 percent increase in new international graduate enrollments (1,041 versus 990 last fall), while the number of new international undergraduates fell by about 30 percent (from 213 last fall to 150 this fall) and the number of new nondegree students fell by 16 percent (from 247 to 207), with the most significant decreases coming in students from Canada, Europe and the Middle East. (At right are students from NC State's intensive English program.)

Virginia Tech has slightly under 1,800 new and returning international undergraduates this year, up by about 300 students from last year. But its graduate international enrollment is down about 10 percent compared to the last two years (though still up compared to fall 2014).

The University of Kansas, a flagship, isn’t reporting official data yet, but Charles A. S. Bankart, the associate vice provost for international programs, said he’s been watching the numbers closely. A preliminary estimate of graduate enrollment suggests it's down by 4.6 percent. The number of new international freshmen is also down, just slightly, but the number of continuing international undergraduates is up, suggesting increased retention and more or less offsetting the drop in international freshmen.

“I’m actually very pleased with where we’re headed this fall, because the applications were down. If I look at undergraduate applications, they were down about 14 or so percent, but the applicants that we got were more admissible than in years past and we spent a great deal of time working on yield,” Bankart said.

That said, he's not breathing a sigh of relief. “I am concerned as I think about all that’s out there under consideration, both rumors and real things -- changes to optional practical training, changes to H-1Bs -- these profoundly affect the pipeline,” Bankart said.

“The competition and uncertainty right now and the changing narrative are challenges. What happened at the University of Virginia, for example” -- where white supremacists gathered for a march last month that turned violent and left one counterprotester dead -- “it introduces a tenor related to diversity, equity and inclusion that prospective students are paying attention to.”

Among other universities, Portland State University, an urban public, experienced a 16 percent drop in international graduate applications and reports that international graduate enrollment is down 6 percent to date compared to last year. “We remain concerned about the impact of the current administration's policies and messaging regarding immigration on our ability to attract highly qualified international students,” said Margaret Everett, Portland State’s vice provost for international affairs and dean of graduate studies.

Dane Rowley, director of international admission at California Lutheran University, said international graduate applications were down 20 to 30 percent there depending on the program. “We had to work harder to try to maintain the same number of enrolling students, but with less applications. So we did see a small decline in enrolled [international graduate] students, about 10 percent,” Rowley said.

“There are a lot of things happening in the global marketplace right now that are much bigger than U.S. politics or Brexit,” Rowley said, referring to the U.K.'s vote last year to leave the European Union. Other countries are offering more options, “and then at the same time, international students are wondering if [the U.S.] is a safe place, and is a welcoming place.”

“In some ways it’s really good; the accessibility of international education is expanding for students, so they don’t have to come to the U.S. as the be-all, end-all of international education. It just happens that it’s coming at a time when the U.S. is almost abdicating its international edge with international students.”

The Visa Application Process

For months professionals in international education have worried that perceptions of the U.S. as a less welcoming and more xenophobic place might deter international students. More than 250 universities joined a national marketing and social media campaign called “You Are Welcome Here” to send a message to international students.

But messaging, rhetoric and perceptions aside, many have also been worried about whether international students would have a harder time getting visas this year in light of Trump’s call for more “extreme vetting” of visa applicants and the imposition of a travel ban barring entry for nationals of six Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East, Western Asia and Africa: Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. International students from those six countries can still get visas to come to the U.S. under a scaled-back version of the ban that the Supreme Court allowed to go into effect. But many in higher education still worried about the damage that had been done, both in terms of the country’s reputation for openness and the real harm faced by students and scholars who were temporarily stranded outside the U.S. when a first version of the travel ban went into effect -- or who, because they were already in the U.S., felt forced to choose between continuing their educations or reuniting with family members.

Fifty-five different academic groups had also expressed concerns about a supplemental questioning form for certain visa applicants the State Department began using this spring. The form, which the State Department estimated it would ask 0.5 percent of applicants to fill out, asks for additional information on travel and employment histories, familial connections, and social media usage. The 55 groups that wrote to express concern said the additional questioning was "likely to have a chilling effect not only on those required to submit additional information, but indirectly on all international travelers to the United States" and that the extra questions "could lead to unacceptably long delays in processing, which are particularly harmful to applicants with strict activity time frames or enrollment deadlines."

Despite the concerns, many university officials told Inside Higher Ed that they noticed nothing out of the ordinary this year in regard to the student visa process, and that students didn’t report denials or delays at a higher rate than usual. Some said they heard about more delays, but not more denials, necessarily.

Many institutions don’t have large numbers of students from the six countries directly affected by the travel ban, and it’s not clear from Inside Higher Ed’s sample to what degree students from those countries simply chose not to apply for visas. The U.S. State Department reported that in July -- a peak time for student visa issuances -- it had issued 262 F-1 student visas for students from Iran, four to students from Libya, two to students from Somalia, 20 to students from Sudan, 25 to students from Syria, and 28 to students from Yemen. Direct month-by-month comparative data for last year is not available, but in all of fiscal year 2016 the State Department issued a total of 2,650 F-1 visas to Iranians, 217 to Libyans, 50 to Somalians, 320 each to nationals of Sudan and Syria, and 665 to Yemenis.

Cushing, the University of Cincinnati’s director of international services, reported that fewer admitted Iranian students than usual followed up on the university’s admissions offer. “The biggest thing that we saw this cycle was fewer number of I-20s that we issued to students from Iran,” Cushing said.

“We issued a few less documents, but we have not seen any adverse visa denials that are out of the ordinary from our previous experiences.”

Students from Iran haven’t generally had an easy time getting visas even before the travel ban went into place, and many have long been subject to an additional layer of scrutiny known as “administrative processing," which can lead to long delays.

“We ended up issuing 13 I-20s to Iranian students,” Cushing said. “Of those, six arrived and are studying. Four are undergoing administrative processing and will be deferred to spring semester (not unusual). Two visas were denied (not unusual), one decided not to come for personal reasons (nothing to do with President Trump). Of the other travel ban countries, the only other I-20 issued was to a Syrian undergraduate student who did arrive.”

Doina Jikich, the associate director for intentional student and scholar services in West Virginia University's Office of Global Affairs, said the university has had a couple cases of students from the Middle East and Western Asia who have faced long delays due to administrative processing. One doctoral student who’s originally from Iran and who applied for a visa in Turkey "shared with us that he’s actually been waiting for a year to get his F-1 visa processed," Jikich said. "Last year when he applied, he was told that his application is subject to administrative processing, which means an extensive background check. He was deferred twice. The university was trying to accommodate a delay."

Jikich said the university contacted U.S. Representative David McKinley’s office for assistance. “That was of great help. In a matter of a few days, that student called us to let us know that they finally granted him the visa after more than a year. … I felt for that student. His dreams finally, finally have been fulfilled after so much wait.” Jikich said another student who is supposed to enroll this fall, an Iraqi who applied for a visa in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, is still waiting for a visa after the student's application was referred for administrative processing.

Outside the Middle East, some universities reported substantial numbers of visa denials in South Asia -- specifically for nationals of Bangladesh, India and Nepal.

“We’ve had some very serious students who have been denied visas for no reason,” said Rowley, of California Lutheran. “It makes me wonder what the marching orders are that the consular offices have been given. Of course they say that they haven’t been given any different instruction, but when we see anywhere from a quarter to a third of our Indian students denied visas, that’s definitely a trend.”

“For the first time I had students contacting me, asking for more information about the university to prepare for their visa interview,” said Stephanie Cheeseman, the international student marketing and recruiting coordinator at Wright State University, in Ohio. Cheeseman said students in Bangladesh, India and Nepal seem to be aware of the main reasons for visa denial -- generally a failure to prove they have adequate financial support or that they don’t intend to immigrate -- and they are doing “a lot more practice.”

“Regardless of whether or not the numbers say there are more or less denials, the perception is definitely there,” Cheeseman said.

After the Wave

Wright State is among those institutions seeing declines in international enrollment. Cheeseman estimated international enrollments are down by about 20 percent compared to last fall across both the undergraduate and graduate levels. The university’s two largest student populations come from India and Saudi Arabia.

“We knew that the Saudis were kind of a bubble,” Cheeseman said. “I think that’s the best way to describe it. It wasn’t going to go on forever, and they did represent a very large percentage of our international student population.”

“Now it’s a time when diversification is more important than ever so as not to have all our eggs in any one basket. It’s easier said than done, but we’re working on it.”

Rahul ChoudahaRahul Choudaha (right), executive vice president for global engagement, research and intelligence for StudyPortals, an online international student marketing and recruitment platform, said that this will be “a landmark year in terms of trying to see the preparedness of institutions who were purposeful for long-term international student recruitment, experience and support, whereas some institutions may have just been riding on the wave, and may now see how important it is to build a more purposeful and strategic approach rather than just be opportunistic.”

“There could be many institutions which could be immune,” Choudaha said of enrollment declines. “Broadly, I would say R-1 universities” -- the most research-intensive institutions -- “seem to be less hurting than the other categories, because they have a much longer history of enrolling international students, but also they have a better brand than the other institutions that joined the international student wave in the last decade or so.”

By contrast, he said, “Institutions which are not perceived to be high ranked or are not located close to major cities or [that have not] experienced challenges with student experiences or [are] overreliant on few markets (e.g., Saudi or China or India) will be the first to get hurt. Many institutions that were late entrants in building their capacity for international enrollment will be the first to lose in this wave of declining international enrollment for fall 2017. The multiplier effect of financial implications of lower fall 2017 enrollment over next two to four years [is] significant for institutions already hurting.”

The years of fairly easy growth may be over -- at least for many universities, and at least for now. Universities may have to work harder to keep their international enrollments steady, or at least to prevent precipitous drops.

At Wayne State University, Ahmad M. Ezzeddine, the associate vice president for educational outreach and international programs, projects that total international enrollments will be down less than 10 percent this fall. It could have been a lot worse: Ezzeddine said the university’s international applications were down about 30 percent, largely due to declines in applications from India and for the engineering fields. But on the positive side, Wayne State’s yield -- the percentage of international students who took up an admissions offer -- increased from 25 percent last year to 37 percent this year.

“All the outreach and the extra engagement we had with our admitted students has paid off,” Ezzeddine said. “I think we just have to continue to increase our outreach and our engagement with prospective and admitted students. We cannot rest, and we have to continue to talk about the value of a U.S. education and what we can provide students. And tell them that they are all welcome here.”

Nick Roll contributed reporting to this article.

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