The ongoing wrangling over the United States’ immigration policy has prompted hundreds of colleges and universities to issue public statements espousing the importance of international students on their campuses.
But new EAB research suggests recruiting those international students has become more difficult: One-third of prospective international students are now less interested in studying abroad in the United States.
Perception shifts are widespread
Our survey results include the specific enrollment intentions of 2,104 high school students from 150 nations around the globe—and many reported diminished interest in attending college in the United States. It seems shifts in the perception of the American political climate are both negative and far-reaching.
Our research shows that changes in politics and public policy can significantly influence international student enrollments, and not just among the students who are directly affected by the administration’s various iterations of travel and immigration restrictions.
Forty-one percent of respondents from the Middle East reported decreased interest in studying in the U.S. (a higher percentage of students than any other region), but students from other areas were not too far behind. For example, 35% of respondents from Asia, Europe, and Canada said they were less interested in studying in the U.S. due to recent political developments.
In fact, students from these more developed countries—frequent competitors with the U.S. for international enrollments—were even more likely than students from North Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East to indicate they believe the U.S. does not welcome global diversity at its colleges and universities.
This view is reflected in the reasons students gave for their reduced interest in enrolling in U.S. institutions. Among those whose interest has declined, 69% percent are concerned “about the U.S. presidential administration,” 55% are “worried about travel restrictions for international students,” 53% are anxious about their personal safety, and 48% fear “prejudice and/or discrimination against people” of their origin.
Communicate your commitment to international students
Although institutions have little control over the U.S. political climate and global perceptions of American culture, they can take steps to mitigate potential losses in international student enrollment by allaying the student fears articulated above. Out-reach campaigns to prospective international students must address and counter the sources of their apprehension.
Related: Higher ed's most pressing immigration questions, answered
Our partner institutions that have proactively communicated their institution’s commitment to foreign students are weathering the chill of lost interest quite well.
The University of Denver, for example, currently welcomes more than 1,400 international students from 89 countries—and the university is intent on remaining a global institution. To attract students from abroad in this challenging environment, the school continues to affirm and articulate its mission to cultivate a diverse and inclusive community. The University of Denver emphasizes its strong on-campus support for students from abroad and the priority it places on global learning.
Tom Willoughby, Vice Chancellor for Enrollment at the University of Denver, notes that those messages resonate with international students, resulting in an “increase in international applications last year, as well as increases in the number of deposits from international students to date.”
It is critical to remember that international student interest is not steadfast. As our political climate evolves, so will colleges’ degree of difficulty in recruiting international students.
While one-third of prospective international students currently express diminished interest in attending an American college, even the remaining two-thirds said their interest could be quashed by further political changes. Specifically, 55% cited “visa restrictions for international students,” 36% cited “a travel ban,” and 23% cited “a wall is built to keep out immigrants” as future developments that would reduce their likelihood of studying in the U.S. Universities should closely track these specific issues and be prepared to respond to students’ related concerns.
Until clear immigration policies are set, uncertainty in international enrollment will persist. To cultivate global enrollment, schools should focus on proactive communications to students about the situation as it exists today — as well as building up both resources and agility to be able to respond fast to future changes in both domestic policy and international perception.