A survey of higher-education institutions revealed concerns about the political climate for foreign students, with 39 percent reporting a decline in international applications. Fewer international students could impact both the U.S. economy and the learning environment.
After hearing their members’ concerns that current U.S. political discourse about foreign nationals could harm international student recruitment, a coalition of higher-education associations conducted an inter-associational member survey in February about applicant trends for fall 2017.
It generated some “early warning signs,” said Melanie Gottlieb, deputy director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. The group had heard anecdotally that international applications were down, so AACRAO wanted “to see if what we were hearing anecdotally was actually a trend or was isolated incidents,” she said.
Along with AACRAO, the coalition included the Institute of International Education; the National Association for College Admission Counseling and its subgroup, International ACAC; and NAFSA: Association of International Educators.
The survey was intended to give only a snapshot of international student and family perceptions and institutional activities, rather than a close look at application numbers. For more in-depth research, IIE publishes the annual Open Doors Report, and the Council of Graduate Schools publishes the annual International Graduate Application and Enrollment Report. However, that data will not be available for many months, AACRAO noted.
More than 250 U.S. institutions responded to the survey. While 39 percent of the participating institutions reported a decline in international applications, 35 percent reported an increase and 26 percent reported no change. The region with the biggest drop in applications was the Middle East, with 39 percent of respondents reporting declines in undergraduate applications and 31 percent reporting declines in graduate applications from there. Institutions also reported declines in applications from India and China.
Respondents said applicants and their families were concerned about visas being denied, uncertainty about travel restrictions, and a less welcoming environment in the United States. Seventy-seven percent of the respondents expressed concern about application yield.
This information helps member institutions decide how to respond to international applicants’ concerns. “Institutions can say, ‘We need to step up communications or do more outreach,’” Gottlieb said. For example, some institutions might decide to travel more to certain regions to reassure people face to face.
The survey results help AACRAO offer guidance and keep members informed about these issues through webinars, blog posts, newsletter articles, and at its upcoming annual meeting, Gottlieb noted.
If fewer international students decide to study in the United States, the impact could reach far beyond admissions numbers. More than 1 million international students attended U.S. colleges and universities in the 2015-16 academic year, and they bring $36 billion to the economy annually, Gottlieb noted. For colleges and universities, international students “are a strong source of revenue at a time when state and federal support is at an all-time low,” she said.
International students also contribute to the overall learning environment at institutions that support all students’ ability to “learn what they need to compete in the global marketplace,” Gottlieb explained, such as “the ability to work within a diverse team.” She pointed out that having international students on campus gives U.S. students some international exposure.
In addition, when international students have positive experiences at U.S. schools, “it makes those students cultural ambassadors to the U.S.,” Gottlieb said. If the number of international students drops, “we lose that soft diplomacy,” she said, adding that many world leaders have experience studying in the United States.