Universities across the United States, and especially those in the Midwest, are struggling to attract international students to their campuses. International enrollment has most noticeably declined in non-flagship state universities, where funding for classes and facilities has dried up due to the lack of international students who are willing to pay full price for tuition.
University of Michigan students on the Ann Arbor campus, who are used to seeing more international students every year, may be surprised to find Michigan’s public institutions are not immune to this decline. Of the state’s 15 public universities, 10 reported a declining international student population over the past year, including U-M Flint, Michigan State University, and Wayne State University. However, several of these universities have embraced strategies like shifting their focus to domestic out-of-state students and online courses to offset falling enrollment rates and revenue. These new strategies have been successful so far.
Forces behind the decline
James Cotter, director of the Office of Admissions at Michigan State University, said several factors could be responsible for the decline in international enrollment, including the tense political climate in the U.S., represented in policies like President Donald Trump’s travel ban.
“In the last five years, there’s been some things that changed,” Cotter said. “Perhaps the climate within the United States and the lack of a sense of welcomeness that the country may be projecting, whether that be true or not … We’re hearing from students that that’s an issue.”
According to its enrollment report, MSU has seen its international enrollment fall from its fall 2014 peak of 7,645 students, or 15.26 percent of the total student population, to 6,850, or 13.69 percent. Cotter said the numbers back in the day may have been “artificially high” because other universities around the world were not as interested in recruiting international students, and saw the current numbers as appropriate.
“Those international numbers (from 2014) may have been artificially high … Most of us in the enrollment management profession knew that those numbers weren’t necessarily sustainable,” Cotter said. “Everyone seems to be in the game of recruiting international students now and that wasn’t necessarily the case back in 2011, 2012, 2013.”
Engineering senior Mary Rose Shi, an international student from Myanmar, said the high cost of tuition in the United States was a deterring factor for many of her friends back home.
“We’re becoming more globalized, so the opportunities available at U.S. colleges are very much available outside of the U.S. as well,” Shi said.
Funding from foreign governments also influences how many foreign students study abroad. Ahmad Ezzeddine, associate vice president for Educational Outreach and International Programs at Wayne State University, said a major factor was the rise and fall in government-sponsored scholarships. As a result of the Brazilian government ending its Brazilian Scientific Mobility Program, Ezzeddine said Wayne State’s population of international students decreased almost four percent, ending a four-year trend of increases.
In China, the number of high school graduates has been steadily decreasing every year, due to the country's one-child policy, which was in effect from 1979 to 2015. Cotter cited the demographic shift in the country and the Chinese government’s investment in its own higher education system as reasons why Chinese students, who make up the bulk of international students at many universities, come in smaller numbers now.
International factors affect some schools more adversely than other. The University of Michigan-Flint campus has seen its international enrollment dwindle to 348 students, 4.44 percent of the student population, or almost half of its 2015 peak of 720, 8.5 percent, according to their student profile.
Kristi Hottenstein, vice chancellor for Enrollment Management at U-M Flint, explained the decline in Saudi Arabian students, who make up more than a third of the international student population at Flint, was a major factor in the school's decline in international enrollment overall. The Saudi government cut funding for students studying abroad in 2016 due to falling oil prices.
“Any enrollment decline has budget implications for a university, and that holds true for U-M Flint,” Hottenstein wrote in an email interview. “However, our university has planned accordingly, and we continue to actively recruit students from Saudi Arabia, across the Middle East and around the world to ensure a globally diverse campus community.”
Despite these challenges, U-M’s Ann Arbor campus has held up well, with the number and percentage of international students growing almost uninterrupted for 10 years. In 2008, the percentage of international students at the University's Ann Arbor campus was 11.55, growing to 15.14 percent in 2017.
Kedra Ishop, vice provost for Enrollment Management, said because government scholarships are running out in foreign countries, the few students who do have funding will choose to go to selective institutions where the return on investment is high. She explained U-M has an established brand overseas that will continue to pull students and prevent a big drop in the number of international applications.
“(Foreign) students are going to be more selective in where they choose to take the funding that they have … They are looking at institutions that will deliver on the educational experience they expect to have for that, and Michigan is well-regarded nationally and internationally,” Ishop said.
Aside from cost, Lucas Lu, CEO of Forward Pathway, LLC, a Pittsburgh-based educational consulting company for Chinese international students, explained Chinese students are getting an impression the U.S. is becoming less safe because of gun violence and terrorism reports in the media.
“Chinese parents worry about this, we have several customers who finished their application then suddenly decided not to come to U.S. due to the Las Vegas gunshot report,” Lu wrote in an email interview.
Judith Pennywell, the director of the University’s International Center, added the University undertakes educational campaigns to counteract perceptions that the United States is a dangerous place.
“International students are welcomed and valued at Michigan, and we want to make sure they know this despite what they might experience in — or feel about — the current political environment,” Pennywell wrote in an email interview.
And after they arrive, international students can expect to find support through advising, workshops, field trips and social events through the International Center and other campus resources.
Toward new sources of revenue
The trend in declining international student enrollment coincides with the general decline in enrollment at public universities, according to the Michigan Association of State Universities.
Ezzeddine said for regional universities like Wayne State, the economic downturn in Detroit after the 2008 financial crisis has affected enrollment numbers adversely.
“When employers stop providing tuition benefits, when jobs are limited, school may not be the top priority for a prospective student,” Ezzeddine wrote. “So they drop out of school or don’t pursue that graduate degree in which they were planning to enroll … And it becomes a domino effect.”
Cotter said in response to the drop in international enrollment, MSU has ramped up efforts to attract out-of-state students, who also pay more for tuition, to balance out the decline in international students.
“What Michigan State’s been able to do was grow our domestic out-of-state to minimize the impact of international decline,” Cotter said. “We feel very fortunate as a flagship institution to be able to recruit students very, very successfully across the state of Michigan, but also from Los Angeles to New York and around the world.”
When asked about the budgetary implications of an increasing international population, Ishop said there were no big changes.
“Our international students pay the same rate as our domestic non-resident students,” Ishop said. “International is a part of (out-of-state students) –– there’s not a subsequent budgetary impact.”
For regional universities, the push to make up for lost enrollment takes a different course. Geoff Larcom, executive director of Media Relations at Eastern Michigan University, said though EMU has seen its total enrollment and international enrollment decrease over the past 10 years, EMU is now focusing on online degree courses, for which many people pay out-of-state tuition.
He also noted EMU is working harder than ever to recruit and retain international students through its #YouAreWelcomeHere campaign, which promotes the university’s support network for foreign students and proximity to Detroit Metropolitan Airport. EMU President James Smith also visited China along with other administrative officials last year to build bridges with students there.
“One of the ways President Smith wants to increase revenue and continue improving the campus is to increase our enrollment of international students, despite any of the forces that might be acting in the opposite direction,” Larcom said. “We adopted the #YouAreWelcomeHere campaign, which involves a video and a powerful outreach campaign to international students, banners, and really featuring them in a variety of ways that showcases what a good experience they can have in the Eastern Michigan campus."
However, international students may think differently. Lu pointed out flagship and private schools like the University of Michigan and New York University are recruiting more international students than ever; in NYU’s case, international enrollment shot up from 3,907 in 2005 to 13,735 in 2017, according to their enrollment factbook. This means with the same GPA and SAT/ACT score, a Chinese student now can attend a more selective institution than they did if they had the same stats 10 years ago.
“Because of Chinese culture, Chinese students value ranking as the first thing when choose school,” Lu wrote. “So now, with GPA 3.0+ and TOEFL 90+ they can go to Top 80 ranking colleges, why they even need to consider non-flagship universities?”
Though current trends may be disheartening, the U.S. still remains one of, if not the most popular destination to study for students and scholars around the world, according to Masahiro Masaki, a graduate student from Japan at EMU.
“I believe education is one of the most critical things to improve our living and thinking,” he wrote in an email interview. “The U.S. is? Was? The country of freedom. Everyone who wants to pursue their goals or dreams should be given an equal chance.”
Shi, echoed the sentiment, saying the distance from her home country did not deter her from pursuing the best education she could obtain.
“Going abroad for me, 3 hours away or 24 hours ride doesn’t matter,” Shi said. “(The U.S.) is one of the best countries that can offer the best education.”