US international student growth rates unsustainable

The recent release of the Institute of International Education's 2012 Open Doors data showed another rise in international student enrolments in the United States, reaching 764,495. This figure marks an increase of 5.7% from 2011 (723,277) and nearly a third since 2007 (582,984).

Despite this growth, international students still only account for a small share of students on US campuses – about 3.5% of a total of 20.5 million students enrolled in 2011. Certainly US colleges and universities have plenty of room to grow international enrolments to further internationalise their institutions.

While the enrolment gains in the US look impressive, some context is in order.

From 2000-11, international student enrolments in the US increased far below the growth rates experienced by other leading student destination countries such as Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom.

To wit: US enrolments increased by 40.5% from 514,723 (2000) to 723,277 (2011). During the same time period, enrolments in Australia grew by 125.2% from 107,622 to 242,351. Enrolments in Canada surged by 189.5% from 53,100 to 153,729. In the UK, enrolments increased by 90.6% from 224,660 to 428,225.

A closer look at enrolment patterns reveals a number of challenging issues.

For one, much of the recent enrolment growth has been driven by just two countries, China and Saudi Arabia. Since 2007, enrolments from China have grown by 186.5% while enrolments from Saudi Arabia have grown by a staggering 332.9%. Indeed, international student enrolments in the US have declined since 2009 if China and Saudi Arabia are excluded.

A related second trend is the increased concentration level of enrolments: in 2000, the top 10 sending countries accounted for 54.5% of international students. By 2012, this share had risen to 67.0%.

History has shown that such concentration and growth dynamics are rarely sustainable. Australia and New Zealand, for example, have already experienced boom and bust cycles based on unsustainable enrolment patterns.

A third dynamic is the increasing ‘narrowing’ of the international student body in the US. In 2012, 96 out of 161 countries on which data were collected sent fewer students to the US when compared to 2009. This trend is not a statistical blip. Rather, this trend has accelerated.

The same comparison for the period 2007-12 indicates a decline for just 67 countries. Notable countries with declining enrolments include Japan, Taiwan, Thailand and Indonesia. This essentially means the US higher education landscape is becoming larger but effectively less internationalised.

Trouble ahead: What is buried in the data

Many commentators have correctly emphasised the underlying attractiveness of the US higher education model as a key driver of increased international enrolments.

At the same time, a closer look at the enrolment data reveals three worrying dynamics that have begun to challenge the foundations of this attractiveness – the inherent quality of education at a large number of US higher education institutions.

First, as already alluded to, the US has developed an unhealthy China dependency. Second, much of the recent enrolment growth is driven by students with low and often marginal English language skills and low academic performance. Third, test and classroom fraud as well as students lacking social integration abilities have become an unfortunate companion of increased enrolment numbers.

It needs to be stressed that the US is still the destination of choice for many tens of thousands of talented international students each year. Yet this pool is running dry and growth has started to take place in student pools that are quite different from the aforementioned.

China dependency

The US has been a large recipient of Chinese students for a long time. Many of these students were graduate-level scholarship recipients. Over the past decades, tens of thousands stayed in the US after finishing their masters and doctoral-level studies to work in science and research positions.

Since 2007, this dynamic has been replaced by a rapid rise of predominantly self-paying undergraduate Chinese students – their enrolments increased from 9,988 in 2007 to 74,516 in 2012 (+646.1%). Graduate enrolments increased, too, from 47,968 to 88,429 (+84.3%).

As a reflection of these increases, Chinese students as a share of all international students in the US has grown from 10.6% (2000) to 25.4% (2012). While a quarter share might already sound high, the impact on classrooms is often disproportional, since Chinese students continue to cluster in certain subjects, such as business or engineering.

It is not uncommon that more than half of all students in some classes are Chinese. Such a high share tends to result, at minimum, in impaired classroom learning dynamics.

Equally disconcerting issues include the financial risk of a dependency from income streams from Chinese student enrolments; the rising risk of political conflict with Chinese authorities (as happened at the University of Calgary); and intellectual property protection as well as little-discussed espionage and national security issues.

Rise of the marginal international student

In 2011, more than four million students were enrolled in higher education outside their home country. Many are truly talented, but many are simply not. The latter have become a significant share of the international student pool. Illuminate Consulting Group (ICG) has run two analyses highlighting this issue.

One analysis focused on ‘talent dilution’. This research analysed enrolment trends of internal and domestic students in leading research universities worldwide between 2000 and 2009 (about half of the surveyed institutions are based in the US).

This analysis shows that domestic enrolments (around 20%) grew in line with the rise of available talent (around 22%), while international enrolments rose by 61%, three times the rate of the available global talent pool.

A rise in recruiting efforts, coupled with an increase in international mobility, account for parts of this growth. But another factor has been the push to admit students – many through pathways models – who would not have qualified for direct admission in the past.

A second analysis is based on ICG’s International Student Forecasting and Analytics Model (ISAFM), which contains more than 2.1 million data points. ISAFM allows for ‘talent banding’ – that is, the creation of relative bands of academic talent of students from a given country based on an extensive collection of education system and test data.

ISAFM also shows that the largest growth segment of international students is taking place in the lower aptitude bands – bands into which US institutions are recruiting heavily.

This should not come as a surprise and in many ways should be welcomed – international education has become more widespread and attainable. Many US higher education institutions, though, will have to take a hard look at their recruitment and admissions practices if they want to maintain the integrity of their academic brand.

On the rise: Fraud and self-imposed exclusion

Increasing reports are emerging with regard to the difficulties US colleges and universities experience with admitting and academically integrating Chinese, or for that matter Saudi Arabian, students.

While the latter face a rather specific set of social and learning circumstances, it has emerged that an increasing number of Chinese students refuse to integrate socially or adjust to US academic rules.

One reason appears to be the goal of these students to acquire a US credential at all costs. For these students, participating in the richness of the US campus culture must seem like a distraction that should be avoided.

Another widespread issue with Chinese students is a lack of understanding of Western-style learning approaches – or, in blunter terms, plagiarism, and a lack of ability or a downright unwillingness to engage in structured teamwork or classroom discussions.

Some of this behaviour has been excused as a lack of cultural awareness. Other analyses, including from Chinese sources, have identified deliberate avoidance and fraudulent behaviour as a key driver. This includes test fraud, which has become endemic to the point of rendering standardised language test scores submitted by Chinese applicants essentially unreliable.

Research conducted by ICG on behalf of a national government has found evidence that English language test scores submitted by Chinese students involve anywhere from 30% to 50% fraud rates. At either level, these test scores cease to be a reliable admissions tool.

Given that many US institutions are in the process of transitioning into higher international recruiting velocity behaviour, understanding the potential highly derogatory impact of the above-described issues is of critical importance.

The unreflective cheerleading of growing international student enrolment numbers constitutes a disservice to US institutions, which are already having to manage sharply rising numbers of unprepared or underprepared international students.

Strategic outlook: Unsustainable

A fined-grained analysis of US international student enrolment numbers suggests that the US is far from enhancing the internationalisation of its classrooms.

Rather, it is substituting an erstwhile strength – high quality education delivered before the backdrop of a unique campus culture – with an unthought-through race to drive up enrolment numbers for the sake of short-term revenue streams.

In this process, educational quality and integrity are being sacrificed. Such an unsustainable dynamic rarely ends well, as Australia and the UK have recently experienced.

US institutions have many options to recruit international students who will succeed in a given institutional environment. But a few more years of unfettered growth of students who will struggle to succeed has the potential to cause serious damage to institutional and eventually America’s national reputation.

* Dr Daniel J Guhr serves as Illuminate Consulting Group’s managing director. He has published extensively on international education issues.