A History Lesson on the Future of Foreign Enrollments

November 14, 2016

For the first time ever, the number of international students on American campuses has topped one million.

According to the Institute of International Education’s annual census, released this week, the number of students from abroad climbed 7 percent in the 2015-16 academic year, marking the 10th consecutive year of international-enrollment growth.

"In our business," says Allan E. Goodman, the institute’s president, "up is always better than down."

Yet, for all the good news, the latest report also contains seeds of concern. Eighty-four percent of the increase was driven by just two countries, China and India, the two largest sources of students. And that’s as enrollment growth from China — as well as from Saudi Arabia, which rounds out the top senders — continues to soften. Just three years ago, China’s gains were more than 20 percent; now, they’re less than half that.

Meanwhile, enrollments from Brazil, which had surged, are cratering, thanks to the cancellation of a government scholarship program. And, of course, no one knows what Donald Trump’s surprise victory will mean for international enrollments.

"It’s not so much that the sky is falling," says Douglas L. Christiansen, vice provost for enrollment and dean of admissions at Vanderbilt University, "but it may be time for a reflective pause."

For Mr. Christiansen and other overseas-admissions veterans, worry that today’s international-students boom could go bust tomorrow isn’t exactly unfounded fretting. After all, it happened 36 years ago.

A Historical Parallel

In November 1979, a group of students who supported the Iranian revolution stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, taking more than 50 people hostage. They would be held for 444 days.

Two continents and thousands of miles away, another group of students felt the fallout. Iranian students were then the largest group of international students on American campuses, accounting for nearly one of every five students from abroad.

While the parallels with today are far from perfect, that history could provide a window on the future of international enrollment.

No one knows what Donald Trump's surprise victory will mean for international enrollments.
Iran in the late 1970s was flush with oil wealth and had a burgeoning middle class, able and anxious to pay for a college education — a description, minus the oil, that might well fit today’s Chinese families. But its universities had space for only a small share of its young population, says Cliff Sjogren, then dean of admissions at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. As a result, many top students sought to go abroad.

Demand was so high, in fact, that Mr. Sjogren, at the invitation of the U.S. and Iranian governments, had traveled to Iran to conduct workshops on the American college-admissions process. The goal was, in part, to cut through the misinformation being provided to Iranian families by commercial recruiting agents, a problem all too familiar to current admissions officers.

The toppling of the Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, in early 1979 had created difficulties for Iranian students in America. Bank strikes and communication breakdowns at times halted money from home, and some universities had to step in to help out with tuition.

But with the seizing of the American hostages, "it was the closest thing to a war situation as you can have," says Stanley Henderson, who at the time was director of admissions at Wichita State University. President Jimmy Carter froze $5 billion in Iranian assets in American banks. Anti-Iranian protests flared across the country, including on college campuses. The 51,000 Iranian students in the United States were ordered to register immediately with immigration authorities or face deportation.

Of the dozen college officials who spoke to The Chronicle at the time, none said their institutions had expelled Iranian students in the wake of the crisis — although they remember hearing of others that did. Mr. Henderson, who retired in 2014 as vice chancellor for enrollment management and student life at the University of Michigan at Dearborn, says it was impossible to know which side students were on. Revoking their visas could have sent some students back to Iran and certain imprisonment, he says.

Jerry Sullivan, then director of student aid at Iowa State University, recalls one student whose father was a general. "They just took him out and shot him," Mr. Sullivan says. "There was a lot of personal trauma."

The hostages were freed on January 20, 1981, just moments after President Ronald Reagan was sworn into office. But by then, the Iranian-student wave was over. Many students did return home. Their bank accounts frozen, and some were forced to drop out. Given the hostile relations between the two countries, getting a visa was almost impossible for new students.

Within five years, the number of Iranians on American campuses had declined almost 70 percent.

A Move to Diversify

Jonathan Burdick started as an admissions officer at the University of Southern California a few years after the Iranian crisis. Perhaps no other institution was as hard-hit as Southern California, which has long been one of the top destinations for international students. The university lost at least half of its foreign-student revenue, Mr. Burdick says, and when he joined it, USC was trying to rebuild its overseas enrollments. For his co-workers, he says, the experience was "shattering."

Mr. Burdick has carried that lesson with him throughout his career. At the University of Rochester, where he is vice provost for enrollment initiatives, he has increased international-undergraduate enrollment from 2 percent when he arrived, 13 years ago, to 23 percent today, while avoiding overreliance on any one country. One of his tactics is to plow the revenue from full-paying students from places like China into scholarships that he can use to recruit students from parts of the world where an American degree would be cost-prohibitive. About 55 percent of Rochester’s international students receive some financial aid.

But Mr. Burdick worries that many of his colleagues are ignoring the past. "There are some pretty smart places that seem to be taking Chinese money while they can," he said a few weeks ago, as he prepared to leave for a recruiting trip to Africa. "It’s a gold rush."

No analogy is perfect, of course. The suddenness and the circumstances of Iran’s boom and bust are unusual. Yet there are other (coup-free) examples of countries rising to become a key source of international students only to experience a fall-off. Japan was the leading country for much of the 1990s but turned inward after the Asian financial crisis. For a decade and a half, South Korea was a steady presence in the top three, but a declining birth rate has eaten into its numbers; this year it was overtaken by Saudi Arabia.

Some of the biggest powerhouses in recent years are likely to see a reversal.
Even India, which increased its count by a whopping 25 percent in 2015-16, has been a somewhat unreliable source of international students, its enrollments rising and falling with fluctuations in currency rates and employment prospects, at home and abroad.

Some of the biggest powerhouses in recent years are likely to see a reversal. In Brazil, political and economic turmoil doomed a government program to send science students abroad. Saudi enrollments have increased more than 675 percent in the past decade, but this year they rose an anemic 2 percent. Oil revenues are down, and the country’s new king has already said he will roll back its generous scholarship program, which was started by and is named for his predecessor.

In China, meanwhile, the economy has slowed, domestic university capacity is up, and the authoritarian government has been sending mixed messages on Western education. "China probably isn’t going to go soft overnight," says Donald Hossler, a senior scholar at the University of Southern California’s Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice. "But I wouldn’t be shocked to open up the newspaper one day and read that the government is giving employment preferences to those who have gone to Chinese universities."

The American political situation could also have a chilling effect. In a survey taken in the spring, some 60 percent of prospective international students said they would be less likely to study in the United States if Mr. Trump were elected president.

And if Chinese enrollments were to decline — which, to be clear, has not occurred — the impact could actually be more seismic than three decades ago.

Though Iranian enrollments at Iowa State fell from roughly a thousand to almost zero, the university was able to make up the difference because of high demand, both internationally and domestically, says Mr. Sullivan, who went on to become executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. In 1980, remember, the baby boom hadn’t crested.

Today the number of high-school graduates is falling in many states. And there’s no other foreign country that could replace a significant dip in Chinese enrollments, at least not anytime soon. One of every three international students on American campuses is Chinese. Even with its recent growth, India sends only about half the number of students to the United States as does China.

What’s more, American colleges are financially dependent on international students like no other time in the past. Coming just as the American economy slid into recession, the revenue from the past decade’s record international-student growth has helped plug budgetary holes and, at public colleges, helped make up for declining taxpayer support.

"Back then it was all gravy," says George Burke, who was assistant director of international programs at Case Western University in 1979. Now colleges need to "get real serious about other countries," says Mr. Burke, who works as an international admissions consultant. "They can’t just accept whoever comes through the door."

Peggy Blumenthal, a senior counselor to the president at the Institute of International Education, says she does see colleges diversifying their recruiting, naming Nigeria, Vietnam, and even a post-Brexit Europe as places that could be promising new sources of international students. Such strategies don’t yield fruit overnight, she points out.

Others in the field aren’t so sure. Like Mr. Burdick, Scott Stevens started in international education in the wake of the Iranian crisis, inheriting an English-language institute at the University of Delaware with just 26 students. He compares international-student enrollments to waves and colleges to surfers. If they ride one wave too long, he says, "it can crash and you can take a header."

Like surfers, colleges need to be constantly scanning the horizon, he says, "ready to catch the next wave."

Karin Fischer writes about international education, colleges and the economy, and other issues. She’s on Twitter @karinfischer, and her email address is