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For American higher ed, declining international enrollments are a hardship. For some programs and schools, the problem could be existential.

The Vulnerable

It’s been a tough few years for intensive English programs.

Since a 2015 high, the number of students who come to the U.S. for English-language instruction has fallen 44 percent. The reasons are many: Scholarship programs offered by foreign governments like Brazil and Saudi Arabia were curtailed. Many students chose to take classes more cheaply in their home country. Some have been turned off by American political rhetoric or scared off by changes to visa policy.

Eighty programs have closed in the last three years, according to Cheryl Delk-Le Good, executive director of EnglishUSA, a professional association.

Finally, though, there were signs of stabilization. In 2019, enrollments declined by just 4 percent, according to the results of an Institute of International Education survey released this past week. IEPs were working leaner, but many were also getting more creative, striking new partnerships and identifying fresh markets.

And then came the coronavirus. When EnglishUSA polled its members recently, more than half expected enrollment declines this fall of 50 percent or more. Many English-language institutes are serving just a handful of students.

“Our world has been rocked,” Delk-Le Good said.

Half of English-language students go on to study here for full degrees, so enrollment dips at IEPs can augur broader declines. Call them the canaries in the coal mine.

Still, intensive English programs have always been more susceptible to market swings, their numbers fluctuating more widely than international enrollments overall.

People often talk about the impact of international enrollment declines on American higher education as a whole, and it’s true that international-student tuition has increasingly been baked into college budgets since the Great Recession. But it is often particular programs and schools that are especially vulnerable.

IEPs may be the most obvious example, but they’re not the only. For example, more than 55 percent of the doctorates awarded by American universities each year in engineering and mathematics and computer science go to student-visa holders.

Some business programs are sustained by international enrollments. International students account for four in 10 applicants to U.S. business schools, yet their numbers have been dropping. Last year, international applications fell by nearly 14 percent, even as interest in Canadian and European business programs grew.

In recent months, a handful of business schools such as Purdue University’s Krannert School of Management have shut down or paused full-time MBA programs. A major culprit in the closures is declining numbers of international students.

With the threat of closure looming, English-language programs will continue to scrap to stay afloat. Online education will likely not be a “temporary band-aid,” but a new avenue to reach students, said Julie Strecker, president of UCIEP, an association of college-based English programs.

Across all of higher education, weakening international enrollments are a hardship. For certain schools and programs, it may be a question of survival.


The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign took out an insurance policy to cover against losses of Chinese students due to politics, a pandemic, or other reasons in its engineering and business schools. But for all its foresight, Illinois may miss out on a large payout. Bureaucratic missteps delayed the university’s renewal of its 2018 policy, and it can no longer get pandemic, visa restriction, or sanctions coverage, Reuters reports.

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A Warning on Endowments

The U.S. government is again sounding the alarm about colleges’ overseas ties. But this time, the warning has a new twist: In a letter to college trustees, the State Department urged institutions to divest from Chinese holdings in their endowments.

A copy of the letter, signed by Keith Krach, undersecretary of state for economic growth, energy and the environment, was shared with me. In it, Krach cautions that college endowments could take a hit if mainland Chinese companies are delisted by American stock exchanges. Government officials have said Chinese stocks could be removed because they do not follow federal audit transparency requirements.

Krach also calls on colleges to immediately disclose all Chinese investments in their endowments. Bloomberg reported last year that college endowment managers have increased their investments in China as they sought greater returns.

The rest of the letter hits more-expected notes, warning about Chinese efforts to steal or copy intellectual property and university research and the threat the Chinese government poses to academic freedom on college campuses.

“The world is watching, and the integrity of our democracy and educational institutions is in our hands,” Krach writes. “I look forward to working together to protect the freedoms we all hold dear.”

Not only is the tack different, so is the audience. Previously, the Trump administration has directed its admonishments about foreign connections to college presidents or to administrators focused on research or international education. One possible reason for the focus on governing boards: Krach is a former trustee of Purdue University.

Around the Globe

Members of Congress, including Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice presidential candidate, are calling on the federal government to permit new international students enrolled in online classes to come to the U.S.

A lawsuit seeks to block fee hikes for applications for Optional Practical Training work authorization documents and other visa-related paperwork.

The House of Representatives passed an emergency bill to halt furloughs at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

A George Washington University doctoral student detained in Belarus has been released.

Students are leading protests against the monarchy in Thailand.

An outspoken retired professor from a top Chinese Communist Party academy has been expelled from the party and lost her pension as punishment for her political criticisms.

Controversial Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam is giving back an honorary fellowship at Cambridge.

With coronavirus safety protocols remaining tight, Australia will allow a pilot project of a few hundred international students to enter the country.

I was part of a fascinating discussion about tackling issues of diversity and inclusion around the globe. You can check out a recording here.

And finally…

Want to be rewarded for doing nothing? A German university is giving out “idleness” grants to three applicants who can convince a jury that their chosen area of “active inactivity” is particularly impressive or relevant.

Hopefuls must answer four questions: What do you not want to do? For how long do you not want to do it? Why is it important not to do this thing in particular? Why are you the right person not to do it?

“Doing nothing isn’t very easy,” Friedrich von Borries, an architect and design theorist who came up with the “idleness” program told the Guardian. “We want to focus on active inactivity. If you say you are not going to move for a week, then that’s impressive. If you propose you are not going to move or think, that might be even better.”

Think you’ve got what it takes to do nothing? Applications are due September 15.

Meanwhile, I won’t be idle, but I plan to take a break from next week’s newsletter. If major news happens, I’ll be back, of course, and you can look for the latest developments from around international education in my Twitter and LinkedIn feeds. Otherwise, I’ll see you in two weeks.

’Til next time — Karin

A freelance journalist and expert on global issues in higher ed, Karin has been writing for more than a decade about the changing relationship between American colleges and the world.