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A new report released by the National Bureau of Economic Research concludes recent increases in international student enrollment nationwide are the direct result of a decrease in state funding of higher education institutions. University of Michigan administrators, however, maintain that this is not case in Ann Arbor, despite popular student perception. Though both trends hold true at the University in recent years, administration points to other factors that may influence international attendance.
The NBER paper, released in December 2016 and co-authored by University economics Prof. John Bound, finds that between 1996 and 2012, a 12-percent increase in foreign enrollment at public research universities correlated with a 10-percent decrease in state funding overall across the country.
The pattern holds true at the University. From fall 2012 to fall 2016, total international enrollment at the University increased by 15 percent — from 5,881 to 6,764 students — according to the Office of the Registrar’s Enrollment Summary.
International undergraduate enrollment alone went up 14.25 percent, while international graduate and professional enrollment increased 15.35 percent. Most notably, new freshman international enrollment increased 25 percent.
Meanwhile, in this same time span, total enrollment of U.S. citizens and permanent residents has increased by only 1.09 percent.
An article published by Bloomberg in late December references the report and notes its finding that, since the recession, there has been a demand for “full-tuition-paying” students at state schools.
Statistics from the Institute of International Education show that 565,000 international students enrolled at U.S. postsecondary schools in the 2005-2006 school year, versus 1.04 million international students in the 2015-2016 school year — an 85 percent increase. Further, according to the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, while tuition made up only 35.8 percent of public universities’ revenue in 2008, it made up 46.5 percent in 2015.
However, the article notes that while, in general, reliance on tuition has dropped recently, it is still above 2008 numbers.
State Funding and University Response to International Enrollment
The University faced a 21.6 percent funding cut by the state in 2011, as part of a general drop in higher education funding under Gov. Rick Snyder. Since the initial funding cut, Snyder has made good on his promise to increase funding to pre-2011 levels through incremental increases. The goal was met in 2016, which saw a 4.3 percent increase in state funding overall, bringing most schools’ numbers back to where they were before the 2011 cut, though the University’s allotment remains 7.8 percent less than it was prior to 2011. Snyder's 2011 cuts followed a nearly decade-long trend in cuts to state higher education funding beginning in 2005.
In June 2016, the University’s Board of Regents voted to increase tuition for both in-state and out-of-state students, leading to an overall increase of $86.35 million in University funds. Lower state funding was cited as one reason for the increase.
State Rep. Adam Zemke (D–Ann Arbor), who has voiced his opinion in the past about the need for more state funding, said he is confident the University is acting appropriately given the decrease in funding.
“I’m certain that the University is taking steps that they have deemed necessary, unfortunately, to figure out another way to generate revenue due to the fact that the state has been underfunding them for quite some time,” he said.
Zemke said the 2011 funding cut was very significant, and does not think it is fair for the schools to have to generate its own revenue.
“The idea that we as a state have decided through our lack of appropriation that it is okay for universities to generate most of their operating revenue from tuition, I think is really terrible and speaks to the tremendous amount of student debt in this country,” he said.
University officials, however, are quick to emphasize that the spike in international enrollment does not represent an explicit strategy to make up for lost funding.
Kedra Ishop, vice provost for Enrollment Management, said it makes sense that international enrollment has increased nationally overall. She explained other schools which have a difficult time appealing to domestic out-of-state students instead look to potential international student.
“(In admissions,) your ability to market to your residents, your non-residents and international students varies,” she said. “You’re going to have, in some cases, institutions that are able to recruit and market themselves amongst students from foreign countries, perhaps more than they are able to do the same for students domestically, out of state.”
She added that foreign interest in a U.S. education has increased exponentially over the past decade. However, she said the University does not use a purposeful or deliberate recruitment strategy for international students because there has never been a shortage of applicants.
She noted that according to the enrollment summary’s new freshmen enrollment data, the percentage of international students in incoming classes has been very consistent since 2012, lingering around 4 percent — a statistic that often surprises people.
“There is a belief that our international student population in our freshman class and in our new student population is much larger than it is, when in reality, it hovers between two and a half and 4 percent, which is considerably smaller than many institutions who are more deliberately recruiting from an international population,” she said.
Ishop said about two-thirds of University applicants are out of state — the bulk of that being U.S. citizens — and these numbers have grown drastically since 2010 and 2011. She said admissions focuses more on balancing the in-state and out-of-state populations, and there is no need to fill a financial quota.
“We are able to attract a high-quality class from the state of Michigan and also respond to almost overwhelming demand from an out-of-state population of students who are equally strong,” she said. “We haven’t been in a position to need to bring forward an international recruitment strategy to fill financial coffers.”
She noted that the University’s out-of-state and international fees are the same.
International Student Response
Despite Ishop’s evidence, international students said they feel that admitting more foreign students does benefit the University financially, and had mixed responses to the increase.
Engineering freshman Edmond Tsoi, an international student from Hong Kong, said he thinks the rise in international enrollment is a more direct effort to boost the University’s ranking.
Though Tsoi completed three years of high school in the United States, he pointed to what he called the “high standard” of students coming directly from other countries. He added these students bring in more revenue.
“I have a couple of friends who came directly from China or even Korea or other countries,” he said. “Usually they are one of the top students in their country. By accepting more international students, especially those who come directly from other countries, they are bringing the standards up. They can also get more tuition money from them too.”
Tsoi noted that international admissions and out-of-state admissions are more competitive than in-state admissions, allowing the University to accept superior applicants to increase ratings.
He also thinks, as Ishop mentioned, a significant reason for the increase stems from the desire of Asian students — particularly those from countries like China or South Korea — to come to American schools.
According to Tsoi, most students in China aspire to go to Peking University, the country’s top school, which he said is ranked lower than the University internationally, based on the Times Higher Education ratings. However, he said, it is incredibly difficult to get accepted.
“In order to get into a better college and also to compete in a less competitive area, they are trying to go to the U.S. or to the U.K. for college,” he said.
LSA sophomore Daria Belyaeva, an international student from Russia, said she didn’t think an increase in international students would serve the University’s rankings as much as it would serve funding.
“Michigan is a great, huge school in general,” she said. “I feel like we never had a huge shortage of international students. I feel like the financial aspect is more currently important.”
In addition to mentioning that her tuition has increased by 4 percent since last school year — as is consistent with the aforementioned tuition increase — Belyaeva noted that international students can receive very little money from the school through grants, studies or other special circumstances. Most international students, she explained, pay full tuition.
“This feels very unfair,” she said. “Obviously, it’s a state school, so why should I get stuff from the state of Michigan? But still it’s a crazy burden for international students.”
Engineering junior Madhav Sharma addressed the University’s engineering program specifically, noting a significantly larger international student population in the College of Engineering than in LSA.
Looking at raw numbers from the aforementioned enrollment summary, Sharma noted the decrease in in-state enrollment between 2012 and 2016 — from 24,095 to 23,095 — a small but evident decrease, given the increase in out-of-state students from 19,331 to 21,623.
“What I’ve heard from other students is that maybe the undergraduate admission is turning more to out-of-state students, because less financial aid can be given and more tuition can be collected,” he said.