U.S. colleges see decline in foreign students, but Ohio State expects increase

September 10, 2018

U.S. colleges see decline in foreign students, but Ohio State expects increase

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Ningjia Huang of Fujian, China, was just starting to get excited about studying computer science in the U.S. when a Las Vegas gunman opened fire at a country music concert, killing 58 and wounding more than 500, last Oct.1

Lucas Long Pham, a data science student from Hanoi, Vietnam, had just been accepted at Case Western Reserve University when a Florida man gunned down 17 students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14.

Although stunned and frightened, and despite the fact that such shootings never occur in their home countries, both students still came to Cleveland to start classes at Case Western. Each is the first in their families to study in the U.S.

For the second straight year, the number of new international students coming to study at U.S. colleges and universities is expected to decline from the 300,743 who came in 2015-16, according to the Institute of International Education.

“This year will be the first time that we begin to see a clear slowdown in the number of international students coming to the U.S.,” said Rajika Bandari, senior research advisor for IIE and an expert on international students and academic mobility.

Of 522 higher education institutions surveyed last year, 52 percent of the schools said prospective students cited “the current U.S. social and political climate as a potential deterrent to U.S. study.”

Just under half reported a drop in new international student numbers, and 20 percent said international students “expressed the desire to leave or have left” the U.S. as a result of the current climate.

That’s a source of concern, because those 1.1 million international students “contribute significantly to the research and entrepreneurial leadership of the United States, supporting over 450,000 U.S. jobs, and adding over $39.4 billion to the U.S. economy in 2016,” according to U.S. Department of Commerce data cited by IIE.

At Kent State University, “our numbers have declined quite substantially,” said Marcello Fantoni, associate provost for global education. The school is expecting about 400 fewer international students than last fall, for a total of about 1,730.

Although 600 to 700 international students are graduating this year, the number of new international students is only 250 to 300. “Not only is American not being perceived as a welcoming destination, it’s also the reduction in the number of visas issued for students,” he said.

“It is very enlightening when I travel, to see America through the eyes of the people we speak to, and hear their questions about America: ‘Is it safe to study in America?’ ‘Will I have problems with my student visa?’”

And as America’s international reputation falters, countries like Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, South Korea, New Zealand and the Netherlands have begun more aggressively recruiting international students. “International enrollment in Canada has skyrocketed in the past two years,” he said.

Kent, one of the top U.S. universities for Saudi Arabian students, is trying to better understand why the Saudi government has shrunk a program that gave full scholarships and stipends to Saudi students accepted by U.S. colleges. “Students had successful experiences at Kent, and they would trust us with their students,” he said.

Other Ohio colleges and universities seem to have largely defied what’s happening nationally. Some of the schools with the largest number of international students say they expect an increase in the number of foreign students this year, although final numbers aren’t confirmed for the 2018-19 school year.

Rounak Chawla, a first-year student from Kolkata, India, chose to study at Case Western because its 50,000-square-foot Sears Thinkbox is the largest university innovation space in the world. But he said friends warned him that “it’s harder to get a job in the U.S. now, and you might have trouble with immigration.”

Chawla said some of his high school classmates opted to attend college in France, Spain, and the Netherlands. Even without President Trump’s well-known views on immigrants, “if international students don’t feel safe coming to the United States, they will not come,” he said. 

Ohio ranks No. 8 in the nation for the number of foreign students, hosting 38,680 international students in 2017, up 2.5 percent from the previous year’s 37,752.

Those 38,680 foreign students collectively spent an estimated $1.18 billion in the state, up from $1.1 billion in 2016, according to IIE.

The five Ohio schools with the largest number of foreign students in fall 2017 were: Ohio State University, with 7,684; University of Cincinnati, with 4,013; Kent State University, with 3,625; Miami University in Oxford, with 2,654; and Case Western Reserve University, with 2,565.

At Ohio State’s main campus in Columbus, “We have 1,120 international new first-year students who have paid an acceptance fee, compared to 712 at the same point last year,” said university spokesman Benjamin Johnson. 

The University of Cincinnati has issued 1,218 visa documents to incoming, new international students for this fall, compared to just under 1,164 issued last fall. “Our projected number of incoming international students looks to be on par with or slightly higher than last year,” said M.B. Reilly, director of public relations.

At Case Western Reserve University, international undergraduate applications were up by about 25 percent, and fall enrollment is expected to be similar to the last few years, said Rick Bischoff, vice president for enrollment in undergraduate admissions. 

“While we’re not seeing it in terms of the numbers, those of us who travel internationally and meet with students face to face are hearing questions like ‘Is the U.S. safe for me?’ ‘Am I welcome in the United States?’ Questions we didn’t get a few years ago,” Bischoff said.

“There’s more anxiety on the part of students in terms of getting visas and all of that, concerns that something might go wrong in the process. When I’m traveling abroad and I see the different perceptions of the U.S., it can be jarring.”′

Case has gone out of its way to attract international students, attending college fairs in Europe and Asia, and working with the International Association of College Admission Counseling “to showcase Cleveland and the kind of place that Cleveland is,” Bischoff said.

“Six or seven years ago, there was only one [college admissions] person who traveled around the world. Now we have half a dozen, and we go to a lot more countries and meet a lot more students.”

They talk up Case’s diversity and tell prospective applicants that unlike at most schools, “we have international students who are getting up to full financial aid packages to be here,” he said.

As a result, 21 percent of the incoming class are citizens of other countries or have dual citizenship, and they come from 56 countries.

The social issues, public policy changes and political disagreements in the U.S. are only some of the factors discouraging first-time students, Bandari of IIE said. For example, Saudi Arabia and Brazil each scaled back scholarship programs that had brought large numbers of students to the U.S. in recent years.

Even so, “international students overwhelmingly want to be in the U.S., and the demand and the desire to gain a U.S. credential is still very strong,” she added.

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