A more optimistic picture for international-student enrollment

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Observations on a “snapshot survey” of international-application trends, the State Department lowers travel warnings for dozens of countries, and I try to make sense of a Senate-passed China competition bill.


In international education, everyone wishes for a crystal ball that could show them what the fall holds in international-student enrollment.

New survey results from the Institute of International Education are starting to help fill in the picture: Forty-three percent of colleges said international applications were above 2020 levels. Of that group, about 15 percent reported a “substantial” increase in overseas applicants.

I unpacked the findings in The Chronicle of Higher Education. (As always, a limited number of paywalled articles are available to nonsubscribers by registering for a free account.) 

But here are a few additional observations…

Applications trends are just a preliminary forecast, and actual enrollments could look different. That’s true in any admissions cycle — and especially so this year.

The pandemic may have shifted student choices, with health and safety coloring decisionmaking and a group of students who opted out last year back in the pool. Anecdotally, I’ve heard from college counselors that test-optional policies are having an impact, as some students add more reach schools to their mix of applications.

Then there are the logistical challenges that could make it difficult for students to get to the U.S. this fall, including visa backlogs and lagging consular capacity, as well as the very real fear of continued Covid outbreaks around the globe. Three-quarters of colleges in the IIE survey said they would permit students to defer until spring 2022.

In short, application figures are a good sign, but not a sure one.

Application increases are not created equally. Yes, 43 percent of colleges report application increases. But 20 percent saw their application volume stay the same, and 38 percent experienced declines from the previous year.

The IIE survey — which includes responses from 414 institutions that enroll nearly half of all international students — hints at some unevenness. While six in 10 doctoral universities said their application numbers had climbed, an equal share of associate’s colleges experienced declines. In a briefing with reporters, Mirka Martel, IIE’s head of research, evaluation, and learning, also said there was variation based on institutional size.

On Twitter, some folks suggested that certain types of programs, like English-language and pathways programs, might be slower to rebound:

And Common App data from earlier this spring likewise showed overall application increases but revealed steep declines from certain countries, namely (and troublingly) China.

Finally, the IIE findings may be almost as interesting in what they say about last year as about the coming fall. In last spring’s survey, more than half of colleges reported a falloff in applications. But the pandemic didn’t become widespread globally until late February/early March — deep into the admissions cycle.

When I asked Martel about this on the press call, she said there could have been “some preliminary Covid effects” on applications as early as January 2020, when the outbreak began in China. But she agreed that there were other factors depressing applications, among them increased global competition, shifting demographics, and the U.S. political environment.

Why is this worth noting in a look ahead? Because it suggests that the precipitous drop in new international enrollments in fall 2020 can’t be entirely chalked up to the pandemic, and colleges will need to consider multiple factors as they seek to attract students from overseas.

Travel Advisories Lowered

IIE asked colleges about their plans for study abroad as well. Half of all colleges said they already had plans in place to permit education abroad this fall, while a third are still in the middle of making that decision.

One thing that could help them: The U.S. Department of State lowered warning levels last week for dozens of nations, moving 58 countries or territories from “level 4: do not travel” to “level 3: reconsider travel.” Among the countries with lowered risk levels are popular study-abroad destinations like France, Italy, Mexico, and Spain.

The State Department had elevated advisories for much of the world back in April when it revised its system to rely more heavily on Covid health information. For colleges and study-abroad providers, who rely on the advisories, this created an unwelcome new wrinkle just as they were beginning to plan to restart overseas programs. Many forbid travel to level 4 countries.

The most-recent recategorization of so many countries reflects what study-abroad and exchange programs heard when they met last month with State Department officials — expect fluidity in travel advisories.

Let’s keep in touch. Email me with story ideas and feedback. For updates between newsletters, find me on Twitter or Linkedin.

Senate Passes China Competition Bill

On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate passed a massive bill aimed at countering Chinese competition, a rare act of bipartisanship in politically divided Washington.

The U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, also known as the Endless Frontier Act, contains $250 billion for research and technology. So there’s a lot for higher ed to like in it.

But when it comes to international collaboration and compliance, there are a number of provisions that could cause universities heartburn. Here’s a rundown of a few key international provisions:

As expected, the bill lowers the threshold for disclosure of foreign gifts and contracts to U..S. Department of Education to $50,000 from $250,000. But it also requires colleges to maintain a searchable database of all foreign funds and does not include a threshold amount. That potentially means every dollar a faculty member gets from abroad would have to be reported. It also creates new oversight roles for the National Science Foundation and the Office of Management and Budget.

The measure bars the recipients of federal research grants from taking part in foreign talent recruitment programs. The prohibition includes programs sponsored by Iran, North Korea, and Russia — but it’s clearly aimed at China’s controversial Thousand Talents initiative.

The bill includes two provisions on Confucius Institutes, restricting NSF and Education Department funding to colleges that host the Chinese-supported language and cultural programs. A similar limit on Defense Department spending triggered a wave of center closures, and I have a hard time imagining many colleges keeping their Confucius Institutes if this becomes law.

The act would create a sort of research-security clearinghouse to help higher ed and other sectors assess risk in overseas partnerships. They may quibble with the details, but the university lobbyists I talked to like this proposal — one of the repeated complaints I hear from colleges is that government officials warn about the national-security risks of foreign projects but don’t provide specifics. Here’s an idea of what a clearinghouse might look like.

Finally, and confoundingly, the legislation includes two completely contradictory provisions about CFIUS. One provision would REQUIRE certain foreign gifts, contracts, or funding to colleges be approved by the interagency government panel that reviews international business deals for national-security concerns. The other PROHIBITS CFIUS from reviewing foreign funds to colleges. Yes, in the same bill. 🤦‍♀️

What’s next: The House could begin considering its own measures for boosting scientific competitiveness as early as this week. Exactly how this legislation will shape up and how it will square with the Senate bill is TBD.

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Around the Globe

A federal judge has given preliminary approval to a $3 million settlement to resolve investors’ claims that a Chinese education company hid the fact that it was ghostwriting U.S. college applications for its clients.

The Student and Exchange Visitor Program is warning international students about a scam where callers impersonate government officials.

President Biden’s new Cabinet-level science advisor says the U.S. government needs to strike a balance between national security and encouraging international collaboration.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed legislation that would increase reporting requirements for state universities’ foreign gifts and contracts. 

The first trial for a professor accused of concealing his ties to China began in Tennessee.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said he would hold a referendum on his government’s controversial plan to host a campus of Fudan University.

A lecturer at Fudan is accused of killing the Communist Party secretary of the university’s school of mathematics.

Chinese police suppressed campus protests after thousands of angry students held a college principal hostage over fears their degrees would be devalued as part of a merger with a vocational school.

The U+ Alliance, a group of universities from the G7 countries, is calling on world leaders to think about the interests of future generations as they address pressing global issues.

Demonstrators at Ryerson University in Toronto pulled down a statue of the institution’s namesake to protest his role in starting Canada’s residential school system for indigenous children. 

QS released its World University Rankings, with MIT holding the top spot.

A former French university president has been arrested because of the poor condition of corpses donated to the institution for research.

And finally…

An international Ph.D. student killed in a shooting spree received a posthumous degree from the University of Chicago. After Yiran Fan’s death, his professors found his unfinished research and completed his dissertation. Fan was honored during convocation ceremonies this weekend, and university officials plan to award the degree to his parents in Beijing later this summer.

Lars Peter Hansen, an economist and Nobel laureate who served on Fan’s dissertation committee, told the Chicago Tribune that the recognition of Fan’s work was bittersweet:

“It was both a reminder of the loss of someone we knew well on a personal level, and the loss of a truly gifted young scholar who would have wanted the opportunity to make further improvements on an already impressive Ph.D. dissertation.”

’Til next week —Karin

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