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U.S. Political Climate Casts a Cloud over International Enrollment

The current U.S. political climate is causing colleges and universities to become increasingly concerned about recruiting and retaining students from other countries, according to the findings of a new survey.

The survey shows that the vast majority of university officials are concerned about attracting new international students, with 55 percent saying they are “greatly” or “moderately” concerned. The uneasiness doesn’t stop there. Eighty percent of the officials have some concern they might lose international students who are already attending their institutions, with 45 percent expressing great or moderate concern. (See Figure 1).

Figure 1b

Despite the worries, however, most institutions are not making even moderate changes in recruitment or retention strategies. Higher-education experts caution that institutions should not ignore any warning signs of an international enrollment decline.

“Institutions still have an opportunity right now to impact the number who accepted and said they were coming,” says Melanie Gottlieb, deputy director of AACRAO: American Association of College Registrars and Admissions Officers. “Clearly, this is a situation that colleges need to be paying attention to and taking steps to mitigate.”

The survey, Policies and Practices in Enrollment and Student Affairs, was conducted in March by Maguire Associates of Concord, MA, for ETS TOEFL. The results are based on the responses of 556 campus officials involved in recruitment and admissions of both undergraduate and graduate students at two- and four-year, public and private institutions in the U.S.

Currently, one million students from other countries are enrolled at U.S. institutions. In the survey, participants report that most of their international students, 20 percent, come from China, and the next largest group, 10 percent, from India. These were followed in descending order by Canada, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea. (See Figure 2).

Figure 2
According to the survey, 81 percent of the respondents say their current international students are slightly, moderately, or greatly concerned about political developments in the U.S. (See Figure 3). They are particularly uneasy, higher-education experts say, about the Trump administration’s controversial policies on immigration, including a proposed wall along the border with Mexico, efforts to deport undocumented residents, calls for tougher vetting for visas, and two attempts to push through travel bans. Even though the bans were legally blocked and primarily directed at predominantly Muslim countries, the efforts are unnerving students from other areas of the world as well, who aren’t sure if they’re welcome on the nation’s campuses anymore.

Chart 3b

The same concerns are echoed by prospective students who worry that they might not get the necessary visas in time to start classes, or might not be able to easily visit home and return to college. “These are real concerns,” says Gottlieb. While she acknowledges that the concerns are not based on any “true fact” of students being directly impacted at this time, the worries, she says, “are based on perceptions, and perceptions can be stronger than facts.”

College and university officials are addressing these concerns with counseling, open forums, campus meetings, and informational emails. Northeastern University, for example, emailed a letter to the 9,500 international students who applied for admission to reinforce that the institution remains a “welcoming community.”

International recruitment is critical, university officials say. When asked in the survey what rationales are driving their international recruitment strategies, the majority, 59 percent, say they are striving to increase the number of international students on their campuses. Fifty-three percent say they want to “increase student international diversity,” 45 percent say they are trying to “grow enrollment with new markets,” 36 percent are trying to “be a global campus,” and 35 percent seek to “increase revenue by finding full-pay students.” (See Figure 4).

Figure 4

Indeed, the institutions are securing students who not only pay full tuition, but also bring cultural diversity and authentic global interactions to the campus. “Yes, the financial implications are great,” says Gottlieb, “but the pedagogical and philosophical reasons are incredibly important.”

When recruiting internationally, institutions use a different approach than they do domestically. According to the survey, more than half, or 58 percent, of the college officials say that when marketing to domestic students, they promote the university’s value and affordability as the top selling point. (See Figure 5). In contrast, with international students, value and affordability ranks last, at 33 percent. The top international pitches are academics and inclusivity, which rank equally, at 42 percent each. (See Figure 6).

Figure 5

Figure 6

Higher-education experts say the disparity reflects the differences in what U.S. students and international students desire. U.S. parents want a good deal on a quality education and for their children to find lucrative jobs after graduation. International students typically are seeking the prestige, unique education, and career opportunities that studying in the U.S. gives them.

To help recruit international students, some institutions look for outside expertise. In the survey, 30 percent of the respondents say they work with international-student agencies. Of those, 51 percent pay a commission based on the number of students who enroll. Others pay a rate based on the number of applicants or a flat fee for services. (See Figure 7).

Chart 7

Whether using an outside agency or in-house efforts, institutions are reaching international prospects through electronic communication. The highest proportion, 69 percent, say they are using email; 66 percent say electronic materials and campus websites; 57 percent use the institution’s social media; 48 percent send print materials; 47 percent conduct school visits and student fairs; and 32 percent use Internet advertisements. (See Figure 8). They’re also relying on promotional videos, virtual tours, recorded testimonials, online forums, instant messaging, online chats, text messaging, admissions blogs, and live webcams. (See Figure 9).

Chart 8

Chart 9

According to the survey, institutions generally are continuing with business as usual when it comes to recruiting and retaining international students. More than half, 56 percent, say they don’t plan to make any change at all in recruitment strategy. Twenty-two percent say they have made slight changes, while 12 percent characterize them as moderate. Only 8 percent say they have made “great” changes. (See Figure 10). It is interesting to note that public institutions seem more likely to have changed their strategies than privates. In the survey, 11 percent of the public institutions say they have made great changes, compared to just 4 percent of the privates. Higher-education experts say public institutions, which charge discounted in-state tuition, might be more driven to recruit full-tuition paying students than are privates, which typically charge the same amount for in-state and out-of- state, including international, students.

Chart 10

So, what’s standing in the way? The institution officials surveyed say one of the biggest challenges is limited resources, in terms of money and staffing. When administrators were asked what they would do if they had unlimited resources, one replies “Meet [the] full need for international students and move to a need-blind policy. Spend more time recruiting in places other than Asia.” Higher-education experts anticipate that colleges and universities are going to have to find new money or redirect spending to counteract the current climate. Brad Farnsworth, vice president of the Center for Internationalization and Global Engagement at the American Council on Education, predicts that U.S. institutions will see a decline in their international enrollments in the fall.

It is imperative, says Farnsworth, for higher education institutions to stay alert, closely monitor what is happening and make intentional adjustments accordingly. He doesn’t expect wide, sweeping transformations, but rather, strategic, targeted modifications, perhaps country by country, or effort by effort.

“By not responding to changing circumstances, colleges risk falling behind their peer institutions in the United States and abroad,” says Farnsworth. “It’s a global game now.”

This content was paid for and created by ETS TOEFL.

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