College applications from international students have dropped

by Kristen Rogers & Christina Maxouris

International student college applications in the United States have dropped, and studies blame the perception of the country’s political environment.

An inter-associational survey released on April 4 by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) shows that 38 percent of responding institutions reported a decline in international applications, particularly in the Middle East. Declines were also noted for students from China and India.

According to Heather Housley, Georgia State’s director of International Student & Scholar Services (ISSS), Georgia State did not participate in this survey, but does participate annually in the Institute of International Education’s (IIE) Open Doors report.

Housley said that undergraduate admissions has not yet seen a decrease in international applicants for fall 2017.

“A major downturn in international enrollment at [Georgia State] would certainly be a blow to our incredibly diverse campus climate, and remove important global perspectives from classroom discussions and campus interactions,” she said.

The report shows that the highest percentage of concerns emanate from the Middle East (79 percent), India (46 percent), Asia, excluding China and India, (36 percent), and Latin America (34 percent).

Nearly 300 U.S. institutions responded to the short survey, representing all sizes, types and geographic diversity of higher education in the U.S. Thirty-five percent of responding institutions reported an increase, while 27 percent reported no difference in applicant numbers.

Sharon Witherell, director of public affairs at the IIE, said that the survey is simply a “snapshot” of the trends highlighted so far, and does not look directly into applicant numbers because of the depth of those reports. However, this benchmark information helps institutions adjust strategies for fall 2017.

IIE’s Open Doors report data from the 2015-2016 academic year shows that there are more than 100,000 students from the Middle East studying in the U.S., and 47 percent of U.S. international students come from India and China.  

Unwelcoming Environment

According to the report, international educators expressed concern that the political climate surrounding foreign nationals in the U.S. approaching the 2016 presidential election might be damaging to international student recruitment efforts.

The survey notes that the most frequently noted concerns of international students and their families include perceptions of rising student visa denials at U.S. embassies, that benefits and restrictions around visas could change, and the perception that the climate in the U.S. is now “less welcoming to individuals from other countries.”

The responses were coded by keyword, then grouped thematically. The comments around the unwelcome climate theme included concerns “around xenophobia, anti-Muslim sentiment, [and] discrimination.”

Concerns in the Middle East grouped around five themes: immigration, unwelcome, political, unemployment, and economic. The top two were immigration and unwelcome. The “theme of risk” was specific to China, citing fear, safety, and general unspecified worry.

Concerns also entail the possibility that the executive order travel ban might extend to more countries, and that visa changes could affect the ability to travel, re-entry after travel, and employment opportunities.

In response, six higher education organizations launched an inter-associational survey in February 2017 due to “increased and continued focus on immigration issues,” the report reads.

In addition to AACRAO, the survey effort was led by the Institute of International Education (IIE), NAFSA: Association of International Educators, the International Association for College Admission Counseling (IACAC) and the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC).

The responses from Latin America were also significant, with immigration and an unwelcome climate being their top two concerns as well, saying that “the political tension between the United States and Mexico has clearly impacted the desirability of the U.S. as well.”

According to Melanie Gottlieb, deputy director at AACRAO, the primary driver of the survey was to establish if the issues were isolated or a larger trend.

Gottlieb said that responding schools indicated that they are engaging in additional travel, marketing, and communication to students in order to counteract the perceptions that international students are less welcome.

“If individual institutions cannot effectively mitigate the negative perceptions, they could see a lower enrollment of international students in the fall,” Gottlieb said. “International students contribute to college campuses in a variety of ways.”

Gottlieb listed several ways in which international students contribute to college campuses, including financially.

“International students often pay a higher tuition rate and receive less financial aid than domestic students, which translates into higher revenue for institutions,” Gottlieb said. “That revenue allows them to support the whole academic program.”

The report says that the data could be an “early indicator of a potential slowdown or decrease in international student enrollments for the Fall 2017 enrollment period, a decline which would have major negative economic impacts for institutions and could potentially result in an increase in tuition for U.S. students.”

Michael Reilly, executive director of AACRAO, said, “Institutions are struggling to reassure students that their studies or travels will not be disrupted by future policy changes during this period of tremendous uncertainty.”

Gottlieb added that colleges and universities are “charged with graduating students with the skills necessary to compete in a global marketplace,” and that’s why it is important to maintain a diverse population.

“These skills include cultural competence and the ability to work in diverse teams.  One of the ways the institutions do this is by enrolling a diverse population of students, including international students,” Gottlieb said. “If we lose our ability to enroll international students, we lose a crucial, pedagogical and cultural aspect of the university.”

The Georgia State data from last year’s report shows that current international enrollment entail 3,076 students, including the Perimeter campus. Sixty-eight percent of international students who are enrolled in the Downtown Atlanta campus are graduate students.

International Students’ Impact

Housley said that not only would a decline in international student numbers impact Georgia State’s budget, but also have a negative economic effect on the state of Georgia.

The state’s 21,000 plus international students contribute $683 million to the state economy and support 9,482 jobs (per the 2016 IIE Open Doors Report). As Gottlieb said, international students often have higher tuition than domestic students and less financial aid, therefore putting greater financial support into institutions.

Housley said that recent federal changes may also impact the fall term’s international student numbers, saying that “new restrictions on visa issuance as well as federal hiring freezes will undoubtedly cause longer visa delays this fall for incoming international students.”

“If visa delays are too long, students may miss too many days and weeks of fall classes and need to delay to spring term,” Housley said. “The recent executive order that included a travel ban for citizens of six countries has been blocked in the courts thus far, and therefore should have no impact on [Georgia State] international students or scholars.”

She said that Georgia State’s ISSS office has received multiple questions and concerns from current and possible future students regarding the current political climate in the U.S. The concerns usually entail how possible actions of the new administration could impact students’ stay in the U.S, and if Atlanta and Georgia State are welcoming of internationals.

“Despite the negative political rhetoric, international education and internationalization is at the heart of American higher education,” Gottlieb said. “I’m confident that this is a short term blip, and long-term, our global position as the leading destination for international students will continue.”