What Does the Current Political Climate in the US Mean for International Student Recruitment?

Politics is certainly not the only force behind international student enrollment successes or failures. But, it does play a big role. The United States has had its fair share of political turmoil in recent years, which has led to shifting perceptions of the country in international communities. In this blog post, we discuss some of the recent policy moves influencing international student recruitment to the US.

Declining Numbers and Rising Concerns

According to 2017-18 enrollment data reported in Inside Higher Ed, American colleges and universities are experiencing declines in new international student enrollment across the board: -6.3% at the undergraduate level, -5.5% at the graduate level and -9.7% at the non-degree level from 2016-17 to 2017-18. Continuing to paint a bleak picture of internationalization in the US, the latest SEVIS data reports a 3% drop from March 2018 to March 2019 in F and M visa students studying in the US.

Data Source: Open Doors Survey

Policy changes have been a major factor in deterring international students from enrolling in US schools. President Trump’s 2017 reassessment of H1-B student visas has caused many to reevaluate their goals of studying abroad in the US — according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the number of applications for H1-B visas experienced a nearly 20% decline. There have also been threats to abandon or severely restrict Optional Practical Training (OPT) opportunities, which allows graduating STEM students to hold jobs in the US for 12 months, or a further 24 months if granted an extension.

Likewise, proposed changes that make it easier to accrue “unlawful presence” has raised concerns. Inside Higher Ed recently reported that a Federal judge has temporarily blocked the Trump Administration from enforcing the new policy. Enforced yet or not, the risk of being banned reentry to the United States for 3- or even 10-year periods for violations such as “working more than 20 hours per week, forgetting to notify school officials after moving to another dormitory, or even if a school official makes a mistake with the paperwork” may be enough to cause students to reconsider their plans to study in the US.

In addition to greater difficulties entering the country for school and partaking in critical employment and training opportunities, many students also fear that they’ll face adversity once they arrive on campus because of the political climate. The Hindustan Times reported that a rise in violence against Indian immigrants since President Trump’s election has caused many Indian students to shy away from the US as a study option. One student said that she “did aspire to work and study in America, but I’m reconsidering.” These concerns pose a threat not only to universities’ enrollment numbers but to student retention levels as well.

Last but certainly not least, there’s the escalating trade war between China and the US which poses a massive threat to college and university’s international enrollment numbers. On June 3rd, the Chinese government warned students of the risks of studying in the United States. Their warning cited high visa refusal rates for Chinese students seeking to study at American colleges as well as accusations of espionage targeted at Chinese citizens. Government intervention like this can have a very real influence on where students will choose to study. We’ve been hearing from parents of prospective students already that they’re concerned for what would happen to their children studying in America should the situation between the two governments worsen.

How Universities Can Adapt

The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article from TOEFL’s 2017 survey stating that 55% of American institutions surveyed are moderately to greatly concerned about attracting international students while 45% are moderately to greatly concerned about retaining them. Despite these concerns, 56% say they don’t plan to make any changes in their international student recruitment strategies.

Data Source: TOEFL survey “Policies and Practices in Enrollment and Student Affairs”

Data Source: TOEFL survey “Policies and Practices in Enrollment and Student Affairs”

Data Source: TOEFL survey “Policies and Practices in Enrollment and Student Affairs”

What’s standing in the way of colleges and universities isn’t a lack of interest in international students or creating the most welcoming environment possible for them when they arrive on campus. Rather, it’s an issue of staffing and resource. Many American institutions have reported that they don’t have the money or workforce (or both) to revamp or expand their strategies to counteract the declines caused by political climate changes. It’s a challenge to keep up with trends while waiting on data from previous cycles, too. So even if a new strategy is created, it might already be ineffective due to even faster global policy and political changes.

That’s where UniQuest can help. Acting as an extension of a college or university’s enrollment office, we deliver the capabilities to extend and accelerate your ability to provide an excellent service to prospective students. Our team focuses on managing international recruitment strategies down to a personal level for each student, ensuring that they feel valued and have their questions answered throughout the entirety of the recruitment journey, from initial contact to their arrival on campus. And, we do this at scale.

To achieve these personal relationships, we use multi-channel communication and follow-the-sun approach to talk with students on their time, on their preferred platforms and, where relevant, in their local languages. Through this work, we create benchmarked data to give you insights throughout the enrollment cycle so you can react more quickly to market shifts.

Gain Additional Insights from UniQuest

Unfortunately, global politics is out of your control, so don’t get too bogged down in what you can’t change. Instead, invest in the areas where you can make an impact to make sure prospective students feel welcome and supported. If you want to know how we’re helping our partners navigate the international student recruitment journey in turbulent times, contact our team of experts today. And if you’d like to receive occasional insights, like this one, in your inbox, subscribe to our Insights email newsletter.