Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016, will be long remembered by those who cast a ballot for the 45th president of the United States. Donald Trump’s election has raised uncertainty and doubts about a reversal of globalization, as well as concerns about a continued commitment to diversity. With a conservative administration about to take office, it would appear that values counter to the international education field have prevailed.
And yet a look at historic Open Doors and other data from the Institute of International Education indicates that the prospects for international education should, in fact, look hopeful for some, while others will need to double down on their efforts. It’s worth analyzing the data to see what they say about the prospects for international education, specifically study abroad and international student enrollment.
Presidential Parties and Study Abroad
Consider first, the recent history of presidential administrations, along with the Institute for International Education’s Open Doors data. Looked at side by side, we can compare the number of students studying abroad from American colleges and universities with the party affiliations of the past two administrations.
While the data limit us to two recent presidents, a significant increase in study abroad students under the Bush administration from 2000-08 may be quite surprising. Yet during this time, study abroad numbers added more than twice as many students when compared to the Obama administration. Between 2008 and 2015, the number of students studying abroad rose from 260,327 to 313,415.
In comparison, IIE’s data on the number of Fulbright applications received also point to significant growth for faculty interested in overseas research during the George W. Bush administration. Between 2000 and 2008, the annual number of Fulbright applications received grew by 2,119, a 713 percent increase when viewed alongside the annual figures for 1993-2000, the Clinton administration. However, during the Obama administration, annual Fulbright applications received also continued to increase, nearly doubling from 6,703 in 2008-09 to 11,091 in 2014-15. This data set may be too small to draw conclusions, but it does provide food for thought and raises key questions applicable to the field. For example, with such an increase of faculty seeking to conduct overseas research, what factors contributed to a declining growth rate for students studying abroad during the Obama administration? Similarly, what more involved role can faculty play in motivating students to share a similar curiosity for global learning?
Presidential Parties and International Student Enrollment
On the other side of international education, what do the data tell us about international student populations? For international student recruitment, the Open Doors data go back as far as 1980-81. Combined with the study abroad data, this analysis leads us to a number of interesting potential trends and predictions.
Looking first at the net increase or decrease of international student enrollment over the past 36 years, the data alone do not shed much light. The number of international students coming to the United States to study has increased during each administration, with the notable exception for the years 2000-08. But when we look closely at the Obama administration, it is difficult not to recognize that international student enrollment increased by a significant 372,223 students -- a 390 percent increase from the prior Republican-led administration. By comparing the growth rates under different presidential administrations, it is clear that under Democratic presidents, the increase in international student enrollment is higher than under Republican administrations.
In addition, a comparison of Open Doors data on international student enrollment as a percentage of total enrollment in higher education in the United States is also significant. Under the two Democratic administrations included in the data -- the Clinton and Obama administrations -- international student enrollment as a percentage of total enrollment increased by 0.5 percent or greater from one administration to the next, rising to 5.1 percent of all American students enrolled in higher education in 2015-16. During the Clinton administration, between 1992 and 2000, international students made up 25 percent of the increase in total enrollment in colleges and universities in the United States. During the Obama administration, the estimated 372,223 international students studying at U.S. higher education institutions represent roughly 31 percent of the total enrollment increase.
Under Republican administrations, however, we see a very different trend. Between 1980 and 1992, and again between 2000 and 2008, international student enrollment as a percentage of total enrollment in American colleges and universities increased by no more than 2 percent. In fact, during the 2000-08 Bush administration, the percentage of international students enrolled compared to total higher education enrollment actually declined, even as total enrollment continued to rise significantly.
Furthermore, during Republican administrations, the data indicate that total enrollment in U.S. higher education increases at a far higher rate than under Democrat-led administrations. During the George H. W. Bush administration, between 1988 and 1992, for example, enrollment grew by 117 percent. During George W. Bush’s administration, from 2000 to 2008, that figure rose a staggering 867 percent. Notably, those increases were not due to an equal increase in the percentage of incoming international students. That percentage remained at or below 4.1 percent.
In contrast, Democratic administrations show a declining rate of growth for total enrollment in higher education in the United States. During the Clinton administration, between 1992 and 2000, total higher education enrollment increased by roughly 300,000, a 77 percent decline from the prior Bush administration. Similarly, during the Obama administration, the growth rate of total enrollment declined by 59 percent.
These findings, combined, lead to a significant correlation for the international education field: during Republican-led administrations, the rate of enrollment for U.S. domestic students increases much more, which is possibly one cause for the observed higher growth rate and corresponding number of students studying abroad.
Impact and Influence on International Education
As we look ahead, what can these data tell us about the next four or eight years under President-elect Trump’s Republican-led administration? More important, what might be the implications for the international education field?
First, if past trends hold, the future points to an increasing growth rate for total enrollment at American colleges and universities -- and possibly a significant increase. Between 2008 and 2016, 1.2 million additional students were enrolled at higher education institutions, bringing total enrollment to roughly 20.3 million. Under the incoming administration, that figure could reach 1.8 million more students or higher, assuming a growth rate of 50 percent under Trump’s administration. At the same time, international student enrollment as a percentage of that total will undoubtedly decline. Estimating how much it will decline is difficult, but based on past data, a forecast increase of 80,000 or fewer international students enrolling in American higher education institutions would be consistent with enrollment figures from 1992 to 2008. This would suggest that international students will account for an unchanged 5.1 percent of total enrollment in American higher education institutions.
In comparison, with an estimated 1.8 million more students enrolling in colleges and universities in the United States, the forecast for study abroad points to a tremendous potential for growth. Based on this estimate, the number of students studying abroad could potentially reach 2 percent of all enrolled students in the United States, which would equal an increase of over 130,000 students per year.
If such forecasts come to fruition, global initiative and international offices at American colleges and universities will need to strategically reflect on their allocation of resources. For example, how are admissions offices preparing to counter any negative effects of stable or even lower enrollment of international students? For education abroad offices, the number of students going to study overseas may be set to rise. Are adequate budgets being considered to cover the greater numbers of staff required, as well as the added responsibilities for study abroad advisers?
The Open Doors data clearly point to evidence that a Republican-led administration will play a significant role in influencing the international education community during the next four or eight years. Colleges and universities that are strategically prepared will be better positioned to accommodate the changing requirements of the field.
Bradley A. Feuling is the chairman and CEO of the Asia Institute, based in Shanghai. Over the past nine years, the Asia Institute has worked with more than 2,000 students and faculty members and has quickly become a leading host partner for many educational institutions in areas such as short-term programs, student recruitment, experiential learning, faculty exchange and career development.
A little over a year ago, our enrollment team at Augustana College met in retreat to discuss the anticipated impact of prior-prior year submission of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or early FAFSA, as it is called now. We completed a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats analysis of what we perceived as entwined in this big change to the financial aid and recruitment timetable. After considerable discussion, we created new timetables, developed a new communication sequence for our prospective and current students, established new and updated old systems, and took a deep breath as we faced an uncertain future with new time frames and a new process.
As we spoke with visiting families during the spring and summer months, we were pleasantly surprised by how many seemed to be informed and fully aware that the FAFSA would now be available for submission on Oct. 1, rather than Jan. 1 -- and that applicants will be able to use income information from two-year-old completed tax returns rather than sometimes incomplete information from the previous year. The high level of awareness continued into the fall. All visit days and high school visits confirmed that families, school counselors and other influencers were aware, had adjusted timetables and were itching to submit the FAFSA earlier than ever before.
Oct. 1 came quickly, and so did the FAFSA submissions. It seemed as if many families were sitting at the computer ready to submit the infamous form in the same way many of us waited to order tickets for Broadway’s Hamilton, refreshing their browsers until they could get in and get it done.
In fact, the early volume of FAFSAs submitted from prospective and current students stunned Augustana’s office of financial aid. All the table tents in the dining hall, the umpteen emails we sent out, our first-ever FAFSA print mailer and the inclusion of the FAFSA timeline in our application instructions had worked. We are rolling in FAFSAs and have exceeded last year’s total volume from first-year students by 40 percent.
Given the high conversion/yield rate for FAFSA submitters in the past cycle, it’s time to break out the champagne. I mean, we’ve done it. We reconditioned the marketplace, prospective students and their families are following our directions, and now we just need to execute. Right?
I confess that I’ve enthusiastically shared the volume numbers with faculty and staff members, the president, and the chair of the Augustana Board of Trustees, and I even tweeted about it early on. But I also admit that I don’t know whether our numbers are strong or soft indicators. Perhaps, I suspect, they are a little of both.
And as I dig into the data, I am increasingly convinced that these lead indicators require very cautious interpretation and should temper my exuberance. Let me offer a couple of examples.
First, because of the U.S. Department of Education’s caution about establishing early timetables for submission, and the potential impact on underserved populations, I have been watching FAFSA submissions for applicants of color carefully and am cautious about what I see. Currently, we continue to see trailing rates of submission for students of color in the applicant pool, with more than 40 percent of those students who applied for admissions not yet filing the FAFSA. The department’s caution is relevant to all of us, and we must now ask what we can do to increase the filer rate among this important population.
Second, nearly 20 percent of those students who have submitted the FAFSA have not yet applied to my college for admission. Some of these FAFSA submitters are even coded as having asked us to cease communication with them. Now, a universal truth in college admissions is that 100 percent of the students who don’t apply don’t enroll. While there certainly is plenty of time for these hundreds of FAFSA submitters to still apply (and I sure hope they do), it’s also reasonable to conclude that we are not a serious consideration for them, making this usually strong indicator meaningless.
There is more to investigate as we look at these very early indicators, but only time will tell us what all of this means.
Looking at the data, I wonder if the Department of Education and all of those who pushed for early FAFSA may have just created the newest fast-application program. Fast-application programs for college admissions are frequently criticized for inflating applicant pools and making it too simple and too convenient for students to apply. These same programs make it difficult for new users in college admissions to interpret what an increase in volume may really mean to yield and enrollments.
Think about it. We’ve made it easier to submit the FAFSA. We’ve aggressively communicated about submitting the FAFSA. We’ve created a marketed FAFSA with the IRS data-retrieval tool. We have systemwide partners, like the Common Application, more effectively encouraging the submission of the FAFSA. We’ve done our best to better align the cost and admissions decision.
It seems we are doing all of the right things. But are we reaching all the right students and families --those most likely to choose Augustana and thrive here?
I am a believer in making the entire process more transparent and less complicated, and in aligning the cost and search process. But I wonder if early FAFSA will just add a new complication for colleges and families -- and more noise that must be interpreted and filtered. Only time will tell.
W. Kent Barnds is executive vice president at Augustana College.