The Sky Is Falling . . . or Is It? New Data and Reflections on International Student Enrollment

By Lucia Brajkovic and Robin Helms

August 9, 2017

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By Lucia Brajkovic and Robin Helms

Nearly three-quarters of the 1,164 colleges and universities that responded to ACE’s 2016 Mapping Internationalization on U.S. Campuses survey reported that internationalization has accelerated at their institutions in recent years. For many of them, hosting international students is a key aspect of their internationalization strategies, reflected in both their stated priorities and resource allocations for international student recruiting—including a marked increase in the percentage of institutions that use overseas student recruiters.

However, significant shifts in foreign policy by the Trump administration have raised serious concerns about U.S. institutions’ ability to continue to attract international students. In a letter to the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security in response to the January 2017 executive order titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” ACE President Molly Corbett Broad stated, “We fear the chilling effect this will have on the ability of international students and scholars to continue to see the U.S. as a welcoming place for study and research.”

Little actual data was available on the extent to which a “chilling effect” was in fact occurring—until recently. In July 2017, the Institute of International Education (IIE) released new data from a survey of U.S. college and university admissions officers, which provided a snapshot of international student yield rates as of last May. The study, Shifting Tides: Understanding International Student Yield for Fall 2017, was conducted by IIE in cooperation with AACRAO: American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admission Officers, the Council of Graduate Schools, the National Association of College Admissions Counselors, and NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

The findings suggest that despite highly publicized concerns that interest in the United States among international students is in decline, actual international student numbers may in fact be holding fairly steady. Although the study is based on a small sample, data provided by 112 participating institutions showed just a two percent decline in the expected yield rate (i.e., the percentage of students offered admission who accept the offer and enroll) this year compared to last year (26 to 24 percent from fall 2016 to fall 2017).

National Trends, Local Realities

At ACE, we are always interested in the results of broad-based research studies and reports released by national organizations such as IIE. But we also recognize the importance of examining the nuances and implications of the data for campuses and how key issues play out in a local context. An article in North Logan, Utah’s Herald Journal caught our attention both for its coverage of the IIE study and how it complements the data with reflections and insights on the international student experience, specifically in the United States.

In a conversation with staff, Rajika Bhandari, director of the IIE Center for Academic Mobility Research and Impact, said that the slight decline in international student yield observed in the study “could be due to the political climate,” but that it’s a trend that predates the Trump administration. “Even prior to everything that’s played out this year, the U.S. was already beginning to see some flattening of numbers in the number of international students coming to the U.S.,” she said.

As one of the reasons for the decline in yield, Bhandari said that in recent years, an increasing number of international students have chosen to study in their home country or region. And actually, the two percentage point drop in international yield is congruent with shifts in the domestic (U.S.) student yield reported by institutions (a decline from 30 to 28 percent during the same time period).

The IIE study concludes that overall, responding campuses are expressing cautious optimism that international enrollments will not decline as much as previously feared, and that some institutions may even see increases due to recent efforts such as “you are welcome here” campaigns—reflected, for example, in a video produced by the University of Arizona.

Concerns remain, however, particularly regarding students’ countries or regions of origin—namely the Middle Eastern countries directly affected by the latest iteration of President Trump’s travel ban, which the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments over this fall. Securing and maintaining a visa has been reported as the top worry by these students, as well as for nearly 50 percent of higher education institutions that responded to the IIE survey.

The Herald Journal’s piece underscores these concerns with perspectives from local students. Amir Malakooti, a Utah State University graduate student from Iran, told the Herald Journal he came to study in the United States because it is “the leading country to do research.” He plans to pursue a Ph.D. here, too. However, his friends are choosing to apply to universities in Canada and Europe, as they perceive that “it is difficult” to be an international student in the United States.

“Even me, myself. Before the travel ban happened, previously I didn’t want to apply to a Canadian university,” Malakooti said. “Then, it happened and I said OK.”

Beyond the Numbers

So is the sky falling when it comes to international students in the United Stated? It’s hard to say. As Chronicle of Higher Education staff writer Karin Fischer noted in a recent article, “The simple fact is, we won’t know for certain about the true impact of the ban—and the ‘America first’ sentiments that birthed it—until students arrive on American campuses for the start of the fall semester.”

And then there is the longer term. As Philip Altbach and Hans de Wit wrote in Times Higher Education, “At a national seminar of international higher education professionals that we recently hosted at Boston College, speakers were still hopeful that they could rise above the bigger political picture and provide a welcome on their own campuses that was so warm that it would sustain their international student numbers through word of mouth. We believe that such hopes are misplaced. Optimism is unsustainable in the current reality, and we predict the acceleration of a trend towards more plurality in global student flows that will anyway take place in the coming decades.”

Regardless of where any of us fall on the optimism-pessimism spectrum, rather than dwelling on the uncertainty, perhaps our best approach is focus on what we do know: The international students at our institutions deserve a top-quality educational experience. ACE’s Mapping data suggest that we have some work to do when it comes to programs and support for international students—efforts in this area have not progressed as much as the notable emphasis on recruiting suggests they should have.

Whether their numbers go up or down—this fall or over the next 10 years—working to ensure that international students feel safe, welcome and supported on our campuses is most certainly good policy and practice.

For resources on recruiting and supporting international students and other internationalization topics, see ACE’s Internationalization Toolkit.


If you have any questions or comments about this blog post, please contact us.

About the Authors

Lucia Brajkovic

Robin Helms

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