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Trouble for Colleges & Communities

Without question, the Open Doors international-enrollment report, released today, has gloomy news for colleges: The number of international students on American campuses decreased in fall 2019, dropping 2 percent. While that share isn’t large, consider this — in seven decades of Open Doors data, international enrollments have fallen only five times, almost all in the years immediately following the September 11 terror attacks.

2020 will certainly be a sixth. An accompanying snapshot survey of more than 700 colleges found international enrollments this fall contracted 16 percent amid the pandemic. The number of new international students plummeted 43 percent.

These trends shouldn’t just trouble colleges. They should be a gut check for the cities, states, and communities where they are located. One more data point, from NAFSA: Association of International Educators, drives that home. In 2019 the amount international students contributed to the broader American economy shrank by more than 4 percent, from $41 billion to $39 billion. It’s the first time the dollar amount has declined since NAFSA began calculating economic-impact data more than 20 years ago.

Courtesy of NAFSA

The number of jobs created or supported by international students took an even steeper dip, of 9 percent.

International education is big business, but in the United States, unlike places like Australia, we don’t talk about it that way. Part of it may be reticence on the part of higher ed itself, which often emphasizes the educational and cultural value students from abroad bring to campus. This is true, but it shouldn’t diminish the reality that international students are an economic force.

In local communities, they support stores and shops, car dealerships and karaoke bars. When colleges shifted earlier this year to virtual learning and campuses cleared out, the takeout orders of international students, unable to leave because of the coronavirus, kept some college-town restaurants afloat.

In nine states, international students have an economic impact of $1 billion or more, NAFSA found. They help spin-off more than 415,000 jobs. As an export, American education is on par with automobiles and pharmaceuticals.

What happens with international students matters not just to colleges but to entire communities. Their impact — and their absence — ripples out.

Want even more Open Doors analysis? Check out my report in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Meanwhile, pandemic or not, colleges have to move forward to recruit their new class of students. For international recruitment, that means big, and perhaps lasting, changes. Admissions officers are targeting their messages to international applicants, applying high-touch strategies, and hosting virtual events around the clock to accommodate different time zones. “Getting up at 2 a.m., it’s jet lag of a different kind,” Jeff Allen, vice president for admissions and financial aid at Macalester College told me. Read the full story.

Share your feedback and your ideas for future coverage with me, And for updates on the latest in international-education news, follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

High-School Enrollments Decline

Amid the flurry of recent reports, here’s an important one you might have missed: A new study from the Institute of International Education found that since 2016 the number of students on F-1 visas at American high schools has decreased by 15 percent.

Courtesy of IIE

The decline of international enrollments at the secondary-school level was driven by a major falloff in Chinese students, of 30 percent. As in American colleges, Chinese students account for a large share, about a third, of international high-school enrollments. There are several possible reasons for the dip, including economic shifts, a growth of international schools in China, and softening interest in studying in the U.S. at the college level.

Why this matters for colleges: International students already in the U.S. have increasingly been seen as fertile recruiting targets for colleges — especially smaller institutions without the budget for much overseas travel. But it may be getting tougher to recruit at home. The Open Doors report found that international enrollments in community colleges and non-degree programs, such as English-language study, are also down.

New Penalties on Foreign-Funds Reporting

The U.S. Department of Education is threatening to withhold Title IV federal-student aid funds from colleges that it says fail to comply with requirements for reporting gifts and contracts from foreign sources.

In a “notice of interpretation” published Friday in the Federal Register, the Education Department “clarified” its authority to enforce foreign-funds reporting, saying that it could “implement a range of corrective measures” for failure to fully report, including “termination of the institution’s Title IV participation.”

The notice — an unusual administrative action that I’ve not seen used in my time in D.C. — is the latest salvo in a stand-off between the department and higher ed. Government officials say colleges have engaged in “pervasive noncompliance,” accusing them of failing to report $6.5 billion in foreign gifts and contracts. Foreign money can leave universities vulnerable to outside influence, they argue.

But Terry Hartle of the American Council on Education said the department is trying to “give itself the authority” to hold back student aid for reporting infractions. Congress explicitly gave executive-branch officials that authority for other violations of the Higher Education Act, but not for foreign-funds reporting, he told me:

“If Congress wanted foreign gift reporting to be tied to financial aid for low-income students it would have placed those requirements in Title IV.”

In the notice, the Education Department also said that it has the power to subpoena confidential materials without promising confidentiality, another authority Hartle said Congress never specified it should have in foreign-funds cases. He noted that the department already has penalties it can enact for noncompliance, including referring cases to the Department of Justice. It has never done so, he said.

Although a public-comment period on the notice runs through December 14, it took effect on Friday.

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Around the Globe

A federal judge ruled that the Trump administration must allow new applicants to the DACA program, invalidating efforts to narrow the program for young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

The State Department said it would prioritize the processing of student and scholar visas as it resumes more consular services around the globe.

Students, possibly associated with a Chinese students association, disrupted an online lecture at Brandeis University about Xinjiang.

The Australian government will delay the return of international students as it makes the reentry of citizens and permanent residents stuck abroad during the pandemic a priority.

Australian lawmakers appear likely to narrow the scope of a bill that would permit the government to veto foreign contracts, amending it to remove disclosure requirements for universities’ agreements with counterparts in the U.S. and Britain.

Could President-elect Biden reinstate the Fulbright program in China and Hong Kong?

Canada is making it easier for students and recent graduates from Hong Kong to study and work there amid a Chinese-government crackdown.

A university researcher in Ohio pleaded guilty to lying about his China ties in a federal grant application.

South African universities should do more scholarship, teaching, and research in indigenous languages, the country’s higher-education minister said.

Educators are pressing Scandinavian countries to include more legislative protections for academic freedom.

Japanese academic societies are protesting the prime minister’s veto of a half-dozen appointees to a national science board.

South Korea faces a doctor shortage after more than eight out of 10 final-year medical students refused to sit for a medical-licensing exam in protest of the government’s medical workforce reform plans.

Students in Thailand are demanding that the rector of Thammasat University resign for failing to protect students from what they say is police harassment.

The European research budget got an unexpected €4 billion increase.

The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities named the University of California at Davis the recipient of its award for global learning, research, and engagement.

And finally…

Years ago, my very first trip in India coincided with Diwali. Rather than leave me to my hotel, some generous friends, teachers at a local school, invited me in, fed me well, and treated me like a member of the family. Experiences like this leave me with a pang to travel and to connect again with my friends all around the world. But I also feel grateful for the memories I’ve got — I can hear the warm laughter and taste the delicious food like it was yesterday. Wishing you all well, until we can meet again.

’Til next week — 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.