Surveys split on outlook for international enrolment

The results of two surveys give conflicting messages about the willingness of international students to enrol in courses in United States universities that had awarded them places – also known as the yield rate.

Contrary to fears of a potential large drop in the number of admitted new international students actually enrolling in US higher education institutions in autumn 2017, the yield rate for international undergraduates remains steady overall, according to a survey based on responses from 112 colleges and universities, published by the Institute of International Education or IIE on 6 July.

But in a separate survey for the Council of Graduate Schools, also published on 6 July, nearly half of deans of graduate schools reported declines in yield rates, and just under one in three reported declines at doctoral level.

Recent debates over visa and immigration policy – including the controversy surrounding President Donald Trump’s Executive Order banning entry from six Muslim-majority countries – have raised concerns among US higher education institutions regarding the desire and ability of international students to travel to the United States for their education.

Both surveys were conducted before the 26 June Supreme Court ruling that complicated the situation further by partially lifting the injunction on Trump’s ban but exempting students who had been offered admission to US colleges and universities.

According to the IIE national study, among the 112 colleges that provided data, there was a 2% decline in the expected yield rate this year compared to last year. Overall, international undergraduate yield has dipped slightly from 26% to 24% from autumn 2016 to autumn 2017.

The 2% decline is comparable to shifts in the domestic (US) student yield reported by institutional respondents, which fell from 30% to 28% over the same time period.

The findings should be treated with caution, however, because the sample of responding institutions is small.

IIE said uncertainty plays a large role in the admission cycle as the start of the 2017-18 academic year draws near.

With more than a million international students pursuing higher education in the United States and contributing more than US$36 billion to the United States economy, US colleges and universities have taken active steps to encourage these students to enrol in their institutions in the autumn, IIE said.

While some institutions are feeling variations more than others, responding campuses are expressing cautious optimism that enrolments by new students will not decline as much as they had feared, and some may even see increases due to steps they had taken in spring, IIE said.

Allan Goodman, IIE president, said: “The intellectual contributions and diverse cultural perspectives that international students bring to US campuses are extremely valuable. Educators are letting students know they are welcome here and working to prepare them for a successful academic experience in the United States.

“It is important that we all continue to address students’ needs and concerns in the coming year.”

’Substantial downward changes’

However, according to the survey conducted separately by the Council of Graduate Schools on 22 May to 7 June 2017, 46% of graduate deans reported seeing “substantial downward changes” in admission yields for international students, compared with 24% for domestic students. At the same time 41% of graduate deans reported that they are seeing substantial upward changes in admission yields for prospective domestic masters students.

“Given that the large majority of international graduate students are offered admission into masters degree programmes, this may have implications for first-time enrolment of international graduate students for autumn 2017,” the Council of Graduate Schools reported.

Declines in admission yields varied by region, with 52% of graduate deans reporting seeing declines in admission yields for prospective international graduate students from the Middle East and North Africa region – the region most affected by the travel ban. But also 42% of graduate deans indicated that they were seeing a decline in students from Asia.

Institutional variations

The IIE said concern about international student yield is widespread and varies by students’ countries or regions of origin and also noted that institutions are most highly concerned about whether admitted students from the Middle East will arrive on campus in the autumn.

Securing and maintaining a visa is reported as the top concern among these students and nearly 50% of higher education institutions felt the same way as students.

Feeling welcome in the United States was an almost equal concern, with 41% of institutions noting so from their conversations with students.

Additional factors that influence these decisions include affordability, physical safety and post-graduation employment opportunities.

Concerns ‘somewhat ameliorated’

IIE said earlier concerns among students and educators about the effect of the Executive Order temporarily limiting visitors from six nations from entry to the United States may be “somewhat ameliorated” by the new guidance issued to consular officials worldwide (effective 29 June). But the survey was conducted before the change of guidance.

“Final enrolment figures for this fall will depend on students being able to get visas on a timely basis and to gain entry to the United States,” IIE said.

The survey findings described in the study, Shifting Tides – Understanding international student yield for fall 2017, build upon a similar joint international applications survey conducted in March 2017 to gauge shifts in applications received from international students at US higher education institutions.

That study – led by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, or AACRAO, in partnership with four US higher education associations – found a mixed picture, with 38% of surveyed institutions indicating a decrease in international student applications, 36% seeing an increase, and 26% seeing no change compared to the previous year.

As a follow-up to the previous joint survey, in May 2017 IIE again partnered with AACRAO; the Council of Graduate Schools; the National Association for College Admission Counseling; and NAFSA: Association of International Educators to conduct the latest survey.