Feast or Famine
The nationwide statistics from IIE only tell part of the story, according to education professionals. Although international enrollment for the entire country’s higher-ed institutions as a whole are not growing as fast in recent years, it has been more ‘feast or famine’ for schools at the individual level.
Johnson said top-ranked U.S. schools have continued to enjoy their pick of the litter — even during the pandemic. Soaring tuition costs have forced international students and their families to pay closer attention to post-graduation job placement and career opportunities, which tends to benefit universities with international name-recognition.
“Your Harvards, Princetons and top public schools have always been attractive options because of their proven track records and global prestige,” Johnson said. “They’ve had no problem continuing to attract students from abroad and even seen meaningful growth during recent years across certain majors.”
On the flip side, small liberal arts universities, directional schools and those considered below the top tier of globally ranked institutions are seeing more drastic downturns in international student interest — mirroring a trend in many of those schools’ overall enrollment tallies. Schools without brand-name cachets and lacking track records for helping international students land high-end career opportunities after graduation face the greatest hurdles.
“The focus on return-on-investment has spread from the grad level to the undergrad level, and folks are wanting really clear evidence of your outcome,” Johnson explained. “They don’t want to just hear the aggregate placement rate; they want to know what the international placement rate is and, ideally, the placement rate for graduates from their country in their major. That’s challenging because a lot of institutions just don’t have the institutional wherewithal to collect and monitor that.”
Schools build their international recruiting on reputation and word-of-mouth, added Huron’s Rob Bielby. Schools that set their current international students up for success after graduation are more likely to reap the rewards of those alumni sharing their experiences with others.
A Cyclical Trend
The trend of decreased growth in international student enrollment might already be past us. Then again, it might just be getting started — depending on who you ask.
A recent IIE report suggests COVID-19’s dent in the overseas student population is quickly being corrected as life returns to normal. Whether or not continued freezes in tuition prices across several universities coupled with a Joe Biden presidency will help annual international student increases return to pre-2015 highs remains to be seen. Biden’s administration in January expanded J-1 visa access for international exchange students in both grad and undergrad STEM programs, while adding nearly two dozen new qualifying fields of study for STEM Optional Practical Training (OPT) visas.
Bielby said his firm saw international application volumes for fall 2023 recover for a large majority of institutions, thanks to opportunities for students to live again on campus and enjoy in-person access to their courses.
“Student visas have become more readily available and the college-going experience in the U.S. has normalized again, which is reviving interest,” Bielby said.
Johnson called the pre-COVID tapering of year-on-year growth a cyclical trend, pointing to historical numbers that show gradual cycles in annual overseas enrollment. At least six major cycles have taken place since the IIE began tracking international college student populations in the U.S., back in 1948.
“We’ve seen downturns before and they’ve always been followed by upturns,” he explained. “Some of it is structural and some of it is temporal in that it’s tied to other factors.”
All three interviewed experts agreed the beneficial partnership between international students and U.S. universities will encourage both parties to adapt to the other’s evolving demands. That means a healthy percentage of schools will begin or continue to invest in international recruitment for the foreseeable future. And with competition for OPT, OPT STEM and H1-B visas still increasing, the challenges for universities will go beyond just convincing students the hefty tuition price tag is worth it.
“We need international students because of the diverse perspective they bring,” said Santa Clara University’s Becky Konowicz. “We want it to be woven holistically into our university’s fabric because this is today’s world.”