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The Future of International Enrollments

Reporting on international education these days, I often feel like the bearer of bad news. My recent bylines include reporting on new visa restictions, tougher screening for students at the border, the impact of geopolitical clashes — you get it, there’s a lot of focus on how current trends could dent international enrollments.

The United States is already seeing a downturn: The number of new students from abroad at American colleges has declined 10 percent since 2015. But that’s not the whole story. I talk regularly with high-school counselors, college recruiters, and others who are part of the admissions process about new markets and strategies and with students interested in studying in America. So one day last fall — probably after I’d handed in yet another story about a troubling development — I turned to my editor. “Let’s write about promising trends for international enrollments,” I said. And he agreed.

The result is my piece this week on potential enrollment bright spots. To be clear, I don’t cart around a crystal ball. Still, here’s some of what I think the future might hold:

  • Students will look for value. The Chinese student boom of the past decade was fueled by an ascendant middle class. Many of the places that fit the profile of a typical sending country — large numbers of college-age students but not enough universities — have much lower average family incomes. That could mean more borrowing, but it could also lead students to colleges that offer more bang for the buck.
  • Students will focus on employability. Like Americans, international students care about the ROI of a degree. The emphasis on work is likely to only grow as colleges attract more students for whom a foreign degree is key to economic mobility. Students could become choosier about the programs they pursue and gravitate to more specialized majors that can give them a competitive edge in the job market.
  • Students will earn American degrees without coming to America. Even if the visa process has made it more difficult to come to study in the U.S., students’ appetite for American higher education remains strong. Colleges will look for new ways to export what they do, whether online, through franchising, or delivering their degrees overseas.

And let me offer two more possibilities that didn’t make the cut in the original article because space:

  • The idea of who counts as an international student will be expanded. American colleges have always recruited expat kids, but anecdotally, there are more students abroad who have U.S. passports but little experience living in this country. On a recent trip, I met at least a half-dozen applicants who had been born while their parents were working or studying here but grew up and were educated overseas. As Americans, these students gain certain benefits — they qualify for federal financial aid, for one — but they also might not get the services they need, such as specialized orientations. While admissions offices can’t count these students in international recruitment totals, Hannah Morris, an international-education consultant, tells me some colleges have embraced a more holistic view of who is international because tailoring services, both during recruitment and once students get to campus, improves overall retention rates.
  • The haves will grow bigger, while some colleges may opt out of international recruitment altogether. In the Chronicle piece, I suggested that smaller colleges with lower tuition costs could find a niche with more budget-conscious students. Still, I think it’s just as likely that brand-name institutions’ edge will only grow. Just 10 percent of colleges accounted for 70 percent of the international student growth over the last decade. When the enrollment pie is massive, there’s plenty to go around. But boom times might’ve just obscured the inequities. There’s no reason to think that the divide couldn’t be exacerbated as fewer colleges have money to recruit internationally and as fewer students seek to study in America.

Those are some of my predictions — what are yours? Share your forecasts, or let me know what new international enrollment strategies you’ve been pursuing. I may include some of your responses in a future newsletter. You can find me on Twitter or LinkedIn or at latitudesnews@gmail.com.

Florida Investigates Foreign Ties

Florida has become the first state to set up its own inquiry into foreign influence on research. The investigtion was triggered by the recent dismissal of six scientists at the Moffit Cancer Center, including the nonprofit research center’s CEO, for failing to disclose their participation in the Thousand Talents program, the Chinese government’s foreign talent recruitment program. The new special legislative committee “will examine any further improper or illegal activities involving Florida’s research universities, medical research facilities, and individuals associated with such institutions,” Florida’s House Speaker said in announcing the group’s formation. It follows the establishment of two working groups on the federal level to examine the influence of foreign governments and businesses on American universities.

Relatedly, MIT sent a memo to faculty alerting them to expect visits from ICE and urging cooperation with immigration officials. Are other colleges getting similar visits?

What Trump Effect?

The Trump administration might not be so much of a deterrent to prospective international students after all. That’s one potential takeaway from new data released by Intead, a firm that advises colleges on global marketing, and FFPEDUMedia, which runs student-recruitment fairs abroad. In a survey of more than 12,000 students from Africa and Latin America, two-thirds said the political climate in America has no impact on their interest in studying in the U.S.

That’s all the more notable because it was a 2016 survey by the same companies that first identified the potential headwinds a Trump presidency could bring to international-student recruitment. (A caveat: The 2016 survey was broader, while the more recent work focused on 16 countries.)

I asked Benjamin Waxman, Intead’s chief executive, what he made of the shift, and he had two theories. First, he said, it might reflect the countries — which include Brazil, Mexico, and Tunisia — the students come from: Students who grow up around higher rates of authoritarianism, corruption, or crime might not be as affected by the current climate in the U.S.

Now that we’re in the fourth year of the Trump presidency, attitudes might also reflect the passage of time. “At first you might be alarmed by a challenging situation,” Waxman said, “but as time passes you get more comfortable. It’s human nature.”

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Around the Globe

“They were our future.”Of the lives lost in the Ukraine airline crash in Iran, many were students and researchers at Canadian universities.

Protestors who say that Chile’s university-admission system is elitist and unequal disrupted nationwide college-entrance exams.

Lawmakers voted down an amendment to the Brexit deal that would have ensured that students could continue to fully participate in the Erasmus academic-exchange program even after Britain leaves the EU.

President Obama set a goal for the U.S. to become the world’s leader in college attainment by 2020. But the nation has fallen far short — and countries like South Korea, Canada, and Japan are way out ahead.

Russian academic journals have retracted more than 800 academic papers after a probe into unethical publication practices.

Saudi Arabia will award scholarships for students to study culture and arts overseas.

Indian universities could become new battlegrounds as ruling Hindu nationalists try to assert greater control over higher education.

Prosecutors released transcripts of calls between prospective students and recruiters as part of sentencing in the University of Farmington student-visa sting operation.

An Oregon women was charged with bias and assault after she stole a Saudi student’s hijab and attempted to choke her with it.

Two Chinese students were arrested for taking photos of a naval base.

To make way for a public-private pathway program for international students, the University of Alabama at Birmingham relocated the stacks of its main humanities library.

Higher ed associations are warning that a proposed visa fee hike could discourage international students and scholars from coming to the U.S.

Denis Simon, executive vice chancellor of Duke Kunshan University, will step down.

Mainland Chinese students walked out of an international debating tournament after Hong Kong democracy was a topic in the final round.

And finally …

Heartland Mainland is a new podcast examining U.S.-Chinese relations through a particular lens, the ties between China and Iowa. The connections are many — the current U.S. ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, is the former governor of Iowa, while Xi Jinping was a little-known government official when he came to Iowa in 1985 as part of a delegation studying farming. And more than 5,000 Chinese students study at the state’s colleges. That’s where the first podcast episode takes listeners, to campus.

Many of you will find the ground it explores familiar, but the co-hosts, both on staff with MacroPolo, a China-focused think tank of the Paulson Institute, bring a fresh perspective — Matt Sheehan is an American journalist who spent time in China and Holly He first came to the U.S. as a Chinese student. Take He’s observation about a key challenge Chinese students face:

“For me at least the worst obstacle to integration is not stereotypes,” she said. “The worst is being ignored.”

I look forward to future episodes, even as they deal with areas, like the way that agriculture and geopolitics intersect, about which I know less.

’Til next week –Karin

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