Has Trump's presidency cut international student interest in the US?

One possible impact the Trump administration might have on higher education is depressing international student applications to American campuses.  Trump’s hostility to immigrants from certain nations (Mexico, some Muslim-majority countries, etc.) could recast the US in a negative light for prospective students.

Are there signs that this downturn has started to occur?

AACRAO logoThe American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) recently published a report indicating that a Trump-inspired downturn is in the works… sort of.  Let me dig into it.

To begin with, AACRAO hedges their report very carefully:

This survey was intended to be a snapshot of student/family perceptions and institutional activities as opposed to a deep-dive into applicant numbers…Because of the annual and in-depth nature of those reports, we will not see those numbers for many months.  This report provides a snapshot of foreign applications to U.S. higher education institutions, initiates a dialogue, and should assist institutions as they forecast and prepare for what might lie ahead.

In other words, this is a tentative sketch, light on data. They even used the word “snapshot” twice in the same paragraph.”

The sample size is also pretty small, “[m]ore than 250 U.S. institutions”.  That’s around 5% of America’s higher ed sector.

Given those caveats, what did they find?

39% of responding institutions reported a decline in international applications, 35% reported an increase, and 26% reported no change in applicant numbers.

That’s really all over the place.  A little more than one third of colleges and universities saw a decrease, while nearly the same number saw an increase.  Then one quarter saw no change.  (NBC only saw the first number, and completely missed the second two.  Remember what I’ve been saying about American tv “news”?  To be fair, Marketplace made the same mistake.)

international student applications for fall 2017

We can’t tell how many students are covered by those institutions. The total number of students is not accessible at this point.

We can look into which nations have changed their student attitudes.

One national set is unsurprising: “Institutions report the highest declines in applications from the Middle East.”   Yet this doesn’t constitute a major impact on American campuses: “Open Doors data from the 2015/2016 academic year indicates that there are more than 100,000 students studying in the U.S. from the Middle East, making up just under 10% of our international student enrollment nationwide.” (emphases added)

Larger numbers come from east Asia and India, and there we might be seeing a serious hit:

26% of institutions have reported undergraduate application declines from India and 25% reported application declines from China. 32% of institutions have reported graduate application declines from China, and 15% have reported application declines from India.

Yet those are still minorities of American institutions (26%, 25%, 32%, 15%).  How many are seeing increases?  The report doesn’t say.

The report also addresses attitudes of potential international applicants, rather than numbers, and those are both unsurprising and important:

Perception of a rise in student visa denials at U.S. embassies and consulates in China, India and Nepal.
Perception that the climate in the U.S. is now less welcoming to individuals from other countries.
Concerns that benefits and restrictions around visas could change, especially around the ability to travel, re-entry after travel, and employment opportunities.
Concerns that the Executive Order travel ban might expand to include additional countries.

Unless those concerns and perceptions change, we should anticipate an actual decline in total student interest in the near future.

So where does this leave us in late march 2017?  Without better data, it’s still early days in figuring out immediate impact on student applications and yield.  But the attitudes this small study reveals suggests a significant downturn to come.

When I discuss these issues with various audiences, people often ask me: so what?  How does this impact my work/position/retirement/children?  Clearly I need to do a better job of connecting the dots.

But here’s one connection.  Based on American higher education buildout and our nation’s demographics, tuition-dependent institutions – i.e., practically every one of them – are facing increasing financial pressures.  Campus leaders have addressed these to some degree by recruiting international students.  If those numbers fall, if those concerns translate to changes in who enrolls where, we’re back to those financial pressures.  This directly impacts budgeting, hiring, program development, inter-institutional collaboration, alumni fundraising – nearly everything.

Here’s another connection.  American higher ed usually focuses its attentions within national border.  But higher education, as I keep saying, is increasingly becoming a global marketplace.  That means other nations’ universities and colleges are likely to escalate their competition with American campuses, both for American and non-American students.  Canada, for example, does a great job of recruiting students abroad, and at least one observer sees the Maple Menace benefitting from Trump:

"From speaking to Univ administrators in Canada, international student applications are UP 40%. Sector of $12B/yr to Cda. How about that...."

So does the brilliant Alex Usher.

Now would be a great time for American academics to reach out to the rest of the world, making the case for these institutions as still being valuable and awesome, despite the new president.  I’m not sure we’ll be good at this, since we are pretty bad at lobbying our state governments, and aren’t too interested in the rest of the world, generally.  We also have the perennial issue of not being engaged with the public. Perhaps the threat to the bottom line will scare up some action.  There are some small signs of this starting to occur.

How about your institution and area?  If you’re in the United States, how are you seeing international students shift?  If you’re from another country, are you seeing your population changing its attitudes to going to school in Trump’s America?

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6 Responses to Has Trump's presidency cut international student interest in the US?

  1. Pingback: Still more campus cuts | Bryan Alexander

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  6. OK Essay says:

    I don’t get it.

    If you attract good foreign students and make them pay more than it costs to educate them, then they spend more cash on accomodation, living, going out etc and at the end of it they stick around and provide our economy with skilled labour how isn’t this a good thing?

    By all means- let the rest of the world keep sending their bright students if they can afford it!

    The only provisors I would attach is that universities should have to ensure a certain % are home students and that students have a good standard of English (good enough to do the course: unless specifically coming here to learn it).

    My brothers university admitted several hundred chinese students who had cheated on English exams and couldn’t speak English at all. He lived with one in halls before they were found out and kicked out.

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