Kent State University

International college students in Ohio contributed an estimated $1.2 billion to the state’s economy and supported more than 12,600 jobs in 2019.

But their enrollments are declining. The drop may threaten a lucrative income stream for institutions in Ohio and beyond during a time when budgets are already stretched thin due to the coronavirus pandemic. International students tend to pay the full sticker price for tuition, along with room and board.

Kent State University and Case Western Reserve University are two local institutions reporting double-digit percentage drops in total international enrollment this fall, mirroring a national trend in which international enrollment nationwide dropped 16%, according to a recent survey of more than 700 colleges and universities done by the Institute of International Education. The number of new students fell 43%.

“Our international student population is a major source of revenue for the university,” said Marcello Fantoni, the associate provost at Kent State University’s Office of Global Education.

This fall, Kent State saw about a 16% drop in enrollment compared to the same time last year, bringing its total amount of international undergraduate and graduate students to 1,309. One of the contributing factors was the pandemic and its impact, Fantoni said.

Fantoni pointed out that other roadblocks contributed to the drop, too. He said the United States is losing a share of its market to other countries as international students chose to enroll instead in places like Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Jill Allen Murray, deputy executive director of public policy at NAFSA: Association of International Educators, echoed Fantoni’s point in a separate interview.

“We’ve lost market share of international students and scholars,” she said. “It’s down 7% since 2001, and that’s at the same time while other countries are actually proactively establishing national policies and even marketing strategies in order to attract these talented individuals.”

President Donald Trump and his administration overhauled the country’s immigration policies over the past four years. A 2019 USA Today analysis found that the president frequently used words like “invasion” and “predator” while discussing immigration at his campaign rallies.

“The lack of predictability in the U.S. immigration system can damage our ability to attract and retain the most talented people,” Allen Murray said.

At Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University, international graduate enrollment saw a 17% decline, bringing that population enrollment down to 1,235 students this semester. Its undergrad population saw a slight uptick, rising from 746 students in 2019 to 751 in 2020.

Like the estimated 20% of international students who are enrolled in U.S. institutions but are taking classes remotely abroad, some of CWRU’s global population is physically far away from University Circle this fall. The university formed a partnership with Xi’an Jiaotong University in China, where CWRU international students could live on campus and take their remote courses together. Nearly 200 students participated.

“It provides an opportunity for them to learn, to socialize, to engage in extracurricular activities that they wouldn’t be able to do if they were living at home with their families,” said Rick Bischoff, vice president for enrollment management at CWRU.

Bischoff emphasizes that international students bring a range of benefits to a campus and its community well beyond revenue. He said the university invests “very significantly” in students from around the world. He said there’s already an uptick of applications for fall 2021.

“We’ve continued to work very hard to make sure that we’re getting Case Western Reserve in front of students, in front of parents,” he said. “We have more than a decade of doing very strong work around the world, building relationships so that schools, counselors, families, they know us.”

Building those relationships looks different post-pandemic. Kent State’s Fantoni, who had previously spent about 120 days a year traveling for the university, calls it “armchair recruitment” since high school visits or fairs have all moved online. Even when travel restrictions ease, he thinks some digital offerings will remain.

“I will still travel. The staff will still travel,” he said. “But I don’t think it will be necessary to travel as much as we used to, because we have learned to do otherwise.”

Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus. This story is part of Crain’s Cleveland Forum coverage, which is sponsored by The Joyce Foundation.

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland in partnership with Open Campus.