Why fewer international students could be good news

The international student enrollment bubble at US universities might be beginning to burst and that may not be bad news. According to a survey of 250 colleges and universities released in March by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, nearly 40% of colleges are reporting overall declines in applications from international students.

Below are 10 reasons why a correction in US international student enrolment is needed immediately and the new opportunities that this might ultimately create for international students, universities and even some US employers.
  • Eliminate the ‘cash cow’ stigma – The press has covered widely the rise in foreign students’ accusations that universities use them as 'cash cows'. There have been protests at US universities from international students regarding this. Until we solve this dilemma, the fewer international students enrolled at US universities the better. No one can afford the consequences associated with having international students feel that the main reason they were admitted to a US college was because of the high tuition they pay.

  • Deliver better budget planning – If the highly prized tuition dollars from international students are not as abundant going forward, universities should not view this change as a problem. Instead, they need to have the courage to articulate what programmes they may not be able to fund, cut what is not working and focus on what they do best and where they have competitive advantages over other universities.

    University leaders should get creative and look for how the private sector makes tough decisions when cash is tight.

  • Investigate an international student enrolment cap – A cool off in international student enrolment inevitably forces universities to admit other types of students and that may be desperately needed. Some public universities seem to have lost interest in admitting in-state students, for example.

    California students with great grades and profiles claim that it is virtually impossible to get into a University of California, or UC, school because spots go to international students and out of state residents who pay higher tuition fees. This past March, due to intense pressure, UC schools proposed a 20% system wide limit on non-resident undergraduate enrolment.

    Did these universities get away with a larger than normal international student enrolment for far too long? Other state universities should take similar action before they are forced to do so and draw negative press to themselves. More regulation is needed in terms of what an acceptable international student enrolment may look like.

  • Eliminate resentment towards international students – Unfortunately there may be a widespread problem of discrimination against international students and high enrolment numbers exacerbate this problem. President Donald Trump is not the one to blame. Several universities have had to deal with discrimination issues towards minority students even before Trump started campaigning. There’s tension at US campuses right now between American and international students.

    We still don’t know how to get American students interested in spending time with international students. Universities in general have failed to create an international student-friendly campus and there’s little at stake when they don’t succeed.

    Some also complain that admission standards for international students are not high enough. Some university professors feel that far too many students from China – the number one international student group in the US – end up enrolling in the same major and many lack the language skills needed to participate in classroom discussions.

  • Introduce private sector-style audits – Before international student enrolment picks up again, in order to avoid abuse and protect all parties involved, universities should have to disclose their international enrolment numbers to outside agencies which would monitor what they do. These organisations would have the power to penalise universities with fines and issue terminations to university administrations if universities are not in compliance.

    More regulation seems to be in order. Private universities may not be under as much pressure to disclose their financials and enrolment numbers, but they should also have a fresh pair of eyes evaluate what they do and hold them accountable for achieving high international student satisfaction standards. Proactive actions may help all universities avoid costly problems.

  • Investigate strategic alliances with outside partners – Organisations in the private sector often rely on outside help such as consultants when they feel their internal capabilities are not enough to deliver the kind of results they are looking for. Universities have historically used their own internal resources as a way to address international student issues.

    University committees with a focus on ‘globalising the campus’ continue to be created, but meaningful results have yet to be achieved.

    The problems international students experience today don’t seem much different from the challenges international students encountered when I came to the US as an international student myself in 1994. Universities should consider seeking outside help to aid them in addressing challenges they have been unable to resolve themselves.

  • New focus for Department of State and other organisations – Fewer international students at US campuses means organisations involved in international education, such as the Department of State and the Institute of International Education or IIE, have an opportunity to rethink the role they want to play in the international student world going forward.

    As opposed to mainly focusing on measuring enrolment numbers and celebrating the fact that the United States currently enrols more international students than any country in the world, IIE could provide guidelines to universities that ensure international student success.

    Objective metrics created with input from outside agencies – not just universities themselves – that measure international student success and satisfaction should be in place going forward and made public. Universities that get the job done could reap the fruits of their labour and universities that fall short should suffer the consequences for a lack of results.

    This kind of results-driven approach coupled with higher accountability would create a new dialogue that organisations such as IIE could broker, for example.

  • Redistribution of international students across different universities and states – New regulations could also include ways for international students to be better distributed across different US universities so some schools don’t end up with an enormously high number of international students.

    Universities that currently have high international student enrolment numbers use this fact to attract even more international students to their campus by calling themselves “leaders in the education of international students”.

    A quality study abroad experience should, at a minimum, provide students with the chance to meet local students. High numbers of international students make it too easy for them to stick to their own, making it hard for them to meet American students, therefore defeating one the main purposes of studying abroad.

  • Happier US employers (in same cases) – Many US employers recognise the unique capabilities and traits that many international students have and are eager to interview them. Some of these employers actually depend on international students to fill jobs that require specialised skills – such as STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skills – which sometimes are not easily found in US students.

    Not every college recruiter is happy to see so many foreign faces at US universities though. There are firms that deal with the US Federal Government, for example, who might not be able to hire international students into their government practices. Other firms with more generic, entry level roles that can be easily filled by US citizens might also prefer to have a bigger pool of qualified American students they could choose from.

  • Better university services and more skilled staff working with international students – Traditional university counselling and other services were created with the needs of domestic students in mind. The current menu of services offered by universities may not meet the needs of culturally diverse students. To make matters worse, most university professionals have never received any training on how to work with international students.

    Many spend much of their time helping these students decide which classes they should take and how they might go about identifying employers that might be interested in hiring them. Many university professionals, in the blink of an eye, have found themselves dealing with a variety of issues and expectations from international students they were never trained to successfully address.

    Lower numbers of international students may hurt the pockets of universities but provide university staff with a chance to catch their breaths and hopefully receive training that might make them better prepared to support the next wave of international students. The lessons learned over the past 10 years allow university professionals to design from scratch new services and departments that better address the needs of international students.
Addressing unplanned growth

The negative effects associated with the unplanned growth in the enrolment of international students that US universities have experienced in the past 10 years have been too significant, serious and obvious to ignore. Let’s hope that a cool-off in international enrolment is really coming. A new and better beginning for those involved in international education is needed.

Until we get our house in order, lower numbers of international students enrolled at US schools may benefit all parties involved. This down-time allows us to give the portfolio of services offered for international students a check-up and figure out how to move forward with better plans that hopefully ensure a better college experience for our international students.

If we get this right this time around, we will be able to confidently look into the eyes of our future international students and say: “Join us. We know we are ready for you this time and you will have the time of your life.”

Marcelo Barros is the founder of The International Advantage, a firm focused on helping international students secure jobs in the US. Barros has over 20 years of experience helping international students beat the odds and secure jobs in the United States after graduation. Barros currently partners with US universities and conducts job search training aimed at giving international students an edge. He is also the author of The International Advantage Get Noticed. Get Hired!.