How the US can stem decline in international students

New enrolment of undergraduate and graduate international students at American universities and colleges for 2016-17 declined by 2.1% or nearly 5,000 students, according to the recent Open Doors data released by the Institute of International Education. This excludes the decline with non-degree programmes.

At an average tuition and fees of US$25,000, higher education institutions are likely to lose potential revenue of US$125 million for the first year of studies alone. The enrolment decline covers the previous year and does not include the effect of the American presidential elections.

More recent trends are indicated by the Fall 2017 International Student Enrollment Survey accompanying the Open Doors report. It suggests that enrolment for this academic year is likely to decline further. Nearly 522 institutions that responded to the survey indicated a drop of 6.9% for 2017-18.

However, there are variations, with some institutions reporting a decline while others do not. Nearly 45% reported a decline, 24% held steady while 31% reported an increase.

Over-reliance and the ‘Trump effect’

Post-recession, many institutions have recognised the urgent need to recruit international students. At the same time, they have had the opportunity to ride the growth wave enabled by the expanding number of wealthy families in China, generous government scholarships from Saudi Arabia and engineering-focused masters students from India.

As a result, many institutions have become over-reliant on a few source countries. A recent example shows the boom and bust of enrolment of Indian students in just five years.

The disturbing trend towards over-reliance on a few markets was previously forecast in 2013 and higher education institutions were urged to plan for diversification strategies.

In addition, the ‘Trump effect’ has been raising concern among students about future career prospects and the corresponding return on their investment in American higher education.

Of 1,815 prospective students who responded to a recent
survey by StudyPortals, nearly two-thirds indicated that they “would lose interest in studying in the US” due to changes to limit work opportunities for international students.

Brand awareness and tuition costs

Clearly, unfavourable immigration policies and over-reliance on a few source countries are posing barriers for many institutions. Moreover, many institutions continue to face two residual effects of the global financial recession which have made differentiation and growing enrolment increasingly competitive.

First, there is increasing competition to gain visibility among students. Brand awareness was identified as the key challenge facing universities seeking to recruit international students in an audience poll during a recent webinar on international student mobility trends.

The Fall 2017 survey suggests that the critical success factor for institutions experiencing growth was active investment of their time, effort and resources in recruitment activities. The top reasons cited by colleges and universities that reported an increase in enrolment were: active recruitment efforts (61.1%), active outreach to admitted students (45.1%) and the growing reputation and visibility of their institution (45.1%).

Second, many institutions are getting priced out of appealing to certain segments of the international student population. The increasing cost of US higher education and declining funding opportunities for international students is a pressing issue. Prospective students responding to the StudyPortals survey identified cost as the number one consideration of whether they are likely to study abroad.

On the institutional side, the Fall 2017 survey corroborated anecdotal evidence that cost of tuition and fees at the US host institution was the second most important factor affecting the decline in international student enrolment after visa-related issues.

What can universities do?

Given that institutions cannot influence political rhetoric or create new student funding opportunities, institutions must channel their energy into assessing and building their capacity for international student success.

In other words, institutions must pivot to a goal of identifying the best-fit international student segment by first discovering elements of differentiation for their institution and mapping it to a recruitment, retention and diversification strategy that adapts to students’ decision-making processes and delivers on the promise of a great student experience.

While the relatively easier days of riding on the growth wave of demand are over, the overall quality, diversity and resilience of the American higher education system remains intact.

The expanding middle class around the world continues to aspire to gain educational, career and life experiences in the US. Moreover, successful institutions can be characterised by their ability to invest in attracting, engaging and supporting the best-fit students who in turn become successful alumni.

Dr Rahul Choudaha is US-based global higher education strategist at DrEducation. As a scholar-practitioner, he publishes, presents and advises on data-informed internationalisation strategies in the context of shifting student mobility trends and evolving transnational education models. Follow him @DrEducationBlog