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U.S. Universities Fear Losing International Students

Students from abroad have become a rich revenue source for many state colleges and their towns. What happens if the Trump administration's anti-immigration sentiment and policies drive them away?

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Joel Glassman has been running the international studies program at the University of Missouri-St. Louis for more than 25 years. His office is crammed with photos and souvenirs from trips to distant countries such as Oman and Indonesia. In March, Glassman made his first visit to India. He didn’t like what he heard. All the people there could talk about, at least to a visiting American, was the February shooting in Olathe, Kan., of two Indians by a white man who allegedly had yelled, “Get out of my country!”

“It was on the front page of the newspaper every day I was there,” Glassman says. “People talked about it relentlessly and were outraged about it.”

Incidents like that, and anti-immigration rhetoric and policies coming out of the Trump administration, have made Glassman’s job recruiting internationally much harder. That’s a political problem -- and a  fiscal one. In an era when practically every state has cut financial support for higher education, public colleges and universities from the University of Washington to the University of Florida have come to depend on the money international students bring in. The students often pay double or triple the tuition of in-state students, with a surcharge sometimes tacked on.

The number of international students on American campuses has exploded over the past decade. During the 2015-2016 school year, their numbers exceeded 1 million for the first time, representing an 85 percent jump from a decade earlier. University officials talk about the importance of diversity and the value of exposing American students to international peers in an era of globalization. Those were the traditional goals of recruiting students from abroad, and they still matter to faculty and deans. “One of the central functions of higher education is to expose people to people other than those they went to high school with,” says Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

But campus administrators admit that foreign students are a revenue source they’ve come to count on. “International students definitely contribute to our financial strength and health,” says Renée Romano, vice chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “In some ways, the international students are keeping this place open and keeping it strong.”


Vice Chancellor Renée Romano: "We have this global influence. It just really creates a great opportunity for our domestic students to learn from international students."

Illinois has long been one of the leading destinations for foreign students, thanks in part to its strong engineering programs. But where Illinois could crack the top five among American campuses with 5,000 foreign students a decade ago, it barely holds onto its top rank with more than 12,000 foreign students today. Those students have spread from traditional magnets like Illinois and Purdue to small regional colleges that formerly saw few applicants from neighboring states, let alone countries halfway around the world. “You’d be surprised at how effective rural universities are at recruiting, just because of the high-quality reputation of American higher education,” says Daniel Hurley, CEO of the Michigan Association of State Universities.

The biggest growth has been among students from China, which now sends one out of three foreign students to the U.S. India, South Korea and Saudi Arabia also supply sizable numbers. More than 100 other countries send students, including 12,000 from Iran, one of the predominantly Muslim countries President Trump has put on a no-entry list. Universities are advising students from the targeted countries not to go home, for fear that they won’t be allowed back in -- a big burden to put on teenaged kids for three or four years.

Dozens of university presidents and chancellors signed a letter in February calling on the president to rescind his original anti-immigration executive order. His policies, along with anti-immigrant incidents such as the Olathe shooting, have admissions offices nervous about the question of whether the flow of foreign students will be substantially reduced. 

Given recent growth, that may seem unlikely. But there was a time, back in the 1980s, when Japan was the top sender of students to the U.S. Then there were a couple of high-profile shootings involving Japanese students, including the 1992 death of Yoshihiro Hattori, an exchange student in Baton Rouge, La., who was shot when he mistakenly went to the wrong house in search of a Halloween party. Although the incident was quickly forgotten here, it left a lasting impression in Japan. The result was plummeting enrollment at American campuses. Japan now sends just 2 percent of the foreign students enrolled in the U.S.

Renewed concerns about safety are being expressed today among foreign-born students -- and their parents. “My mom has called me at least three times and asked, ‘Are you OK?’” says Ishaan Kansal, a computer science student from Delhi at the University of Illinois.

There are a lot of factors that go into the decision of choosing a college, particularly one thousands of miles from home. But one of the main factors for foreign students is the belief that they’ll receive a superior education at a university in the United States. Millions have been willing to overlook the high comparative cost of American higher education -- especially at a time when the dollar is strong -- because of the belief that this country offers them the best potential opportunities. “Some of the professors we have here are some of the most respected people in their field in the world,” Kansal says.

Many are also motivated by hopes of not just studying but staying permanently in the U.S. But to the extent America appears to be a less welcoming place, international students might turn their attention elsewhere. Certainly, colleges in countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom are taking advantage of the opportunity the new American attitude gives them to convince Chinese or Korean students that they’ll receive a more gracious welcome. “We’ve built up generations of a good reputation for fostering good ideas and being very welcoming to students,” says Scott Bennett, who represents Champaign in the Illinois Senate, “and that’s jeopardized by just a few thoughtless statements.”

Canada’s advanced STEM programs come with a pathway to residency embedded in them. By contrast, the Trump administration has already announced that it is ending a program that expedites applications for H-1B visas, which permit highly skilled individuals to live and work in this country and are often used by foreign students to stay after graduation.

A recent survey of colleges and universities found that 39 percent of them saw a drop in the number of applications from foreign students this year. That drew national media attention. What didn’t make the headlines was the fact that the survey found nearly an equal number of campuses (35 percent) that saw an increase in applications. What’s more, application deadlines at most schools had already passed before Trump was even sworn in.

So no one really knows whether administration policies or general anti-immigrant sentiment will lead to a dip in international student enrollment. But there’s a lot of worry that they will. “Higher ed is terrified of what’s going to happen this coming year in terms of its ability to enroll the baseline of foreign students it has enrolled to this point,” Nassirian says. “We are sending generally negative messages at a point when other countries are stepping up to do more recruitment.”


Several new buildings that mostly house foreign students have sprung up in the past few years.

A new word has been added to the local lingo in Urbana-Champaign: skyline. Green Street, the main drag off campus, is still primarily made up of two-story buildings fronted by smoke shops and restaurants. But over the past few years, several new 15-story towers that offer luxury housing to predominantly foreign students have sprouted up.

Nationwide, international students pump an estimated $35 billion into the economy. In college towns where their numbers have proliferated, they’ve become linchpins of the local economy. The branch of one bank that serves the Urbana-Champaign campus has three Mandarin speakers on staff. Many of the female Chinese students staved off the cold this winter by wearing fashionable Canada Goose jackets, which can cost hundreds of dollars. The area’s BMW dealership just held an event specifically targeted at female Chinese freshmen. “They’re moving out of dorms, and we’ll give them some special pricing,” says Ben Quattrone, who owns the dealership. 

The University of Illinois started targeting the Asian student market more than a decade ago. Other schools are coming to international recruiting fresh. Sometimes, they don’t do enough to help students adjust. Foreigners face the same stresses as domestic students in terms of adjusting to a new community and living away from parents for the first time, only theirs are magnified by being farther away from support networks and home cultures. 

Many also face language hurdles. A sizable number of Chinese students at the University of Illinois have adopted Americanized names such as Annie and Tony to avoid having to hear their classmates mangle their real names. They have to adjust to different teaching styles as well. In some cultures, speaking up in class may be considered rude or disruptive, while American professors may expect active participation, says Suejung Han, a psychologist at Illinois State University who has studied how international students adjust. Too many universities, she says, are trying to get in on the international student gold rush without thinking through how they’ll handle the influx, a negligent approach Han considers “unethical and detrimental to both international students and the campus climate.”

But a number are making efforts. Prestigious universities such as Harvard and Yale have been drawing in students from abroad for centuries and have learned how to help students acclimate. Many universities with even a relatively small number of foreign students now have full-time staff dedicated to making sure they have the services they need. 

Colleges with large foreign enrollments take different approaches to integrating international students. The University of Central Florida saw more than 2,250 of these students enroll last fall -- a 23 percent jump from 2014. The university uses an academy approach, having foreign students take core requirements together for a year. That may help those students feel comfortable, but many international students come for the American experience, not the chance to sit among other students from Southern China. “It’s kind of offensive to put us all together,” says Evan Zhao, an architecture student at Illinois. “If you’re going to study abroad, you should meet foreign people.”

Conversely, some schools have a critical mass of students from China, South Korea or India who tend to segregate themselves. One recent study found that 40 percent of foreign students have no close American friends on campus, with numbers higher among East Asian students. In China, students are used to remaining with the same small cohort of friends all through their school years. “Ninety percent of the Chinese kids around me still hang out with Chinese kids, and they barely have any American friends,” says Sihong Peng, a recent graduate of the University of Iowa from Beijing. “I barely find any common topics. American kids like to talk about football and basketball.”

In addition to more than 5,000 students from China, the University of Illinois has roughly that many students who are Asian-Americans. “A lot of the students are from suburbs of Chicago,” says Junhong Xu, a University of Illinois student from China’s Fujian province. “‘I’m from Joliet,’ ‘I’m from Naperville’ -- it’s an instant connection Chinese students don’t have.”

Xu started a club to bring Chinese and American students together. The University of Illinois has no end of student clubs, associations, mentorship and volunteer programs meant to help students from different backgrounds to meet and mingle, but it doesn’t take too many swings through dorm dining halls or the student union to see that students seem to congregate among their own kind, whether out of their own choice or a sense of being ostracized by domestic students. 


Many international students come for the American experience, not the chance to study among other students from southern China. "It's kind of offensive to put us all together," says Evan Zhao, an architecture student. "If you're going to study abroad, you should meet foreign people."

Xu, Peng and other foreign students say they were drawn to the U.S. because of the opportunity to pursue a top-quality education. In China, there’s intensely stressful competition to get into the handful of universities that are considered the country’s best. Many of the other colleges are second-rate. At those schools, Peng says, “education quality suddenly goes way [downhill]. Kids don’t care about grades and basically just lose four years of time.”

The Chinese consulate in Chicago keeps track of 58,000 students in its Midwestern district alone. The recent arrival of so many foreign students, particularly from China, has led to widespread complaints that they’re crowding out in-state kids. In California last year, the legislature voted to withhold $18.5 million from the University of California unless the system agreed to limit the number of out-of-state students, foreign and domestic, that it enrolls. The market may be taking care of the problem for them. This year, University of California schools saw a slight decline in international student applications -- the first in a decade and a notable turnabout from the past decade, when the number of applications rose 21 percent.

At the Ivy League schools, foreign enrollment shot up 46 percent between 2004 and 2014, while freshman class sizes rose just 5 percent. For public colleges and universities that are less in demand, foreign students are a boon, not just because they pay full tuition, but because they are taking up slack. The number of American 18-year-olds is projected to decrease for the foreseeable future. “There is absolutely plenty of capacity at Michigan public universities and national public universities,” says Hurley, the Michigan higher ed association chief.

Intuitively, it seems counter to the mission of a state-funded university to concentrate on educating students from elsewhere. But that’s why such students pay higher tuition. With state support badly depleted, in-state students often represent a loss for universities. Foreign students aren’t necessarily taking “their” places anyway. At the University of Illinois, undergraduate enrollment at the engineering school was 90 percent in-state kids a decade ago. Now, they make up just 60 percent. Yet the actual number of Illinois students has increased, even as their share has dropped. The school simply expanded as part of its international outreach effort. “We ran into the perception that still exists that we were bringing in international students at the expense of Illinois residents,” says Kevin Pitts, an associate dean of engineering. “That was never our strategy.”

The University of Illinois goes out of its way to help international students navigate campus life -- and even find their way to campus. Four years ago, a freshman from China got into a car at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport and was charged more than $4,000 for the 150-mile ride to campus. That incident helped prompt a new approach. With more than 90 percent of its foreign students disembarking at O’Hare, the university’s international students program sends a team to camp out by the baggage claim at the international terminal for several days at the start of each term, guiding jet-lagged and confused students onto shuttle buses that will take them straight to campus. “Our goal is from the moment you get through baggage claim, there is somebody from the university until you step right into your dorm,” says Martin McFarlane, the international student program director.

These days, McFarlane says he’s constantly hearing from foreign students who are nervous about what Trump administration policies may mean for their futures. There’s a balance to strike, he says, between trying to keep them informed and not wanting to cause them undue alarm. There are students at the University of Illinois -- even some from Muslim countries -- who shrug off the idea that serious barriers will arise to keep most foreign students out. But the fear that this could happen seems to be front of mind for many international students, including those from countries who face no new immigration restrictions. “For those who are now applying, maybe they’ll think of other countries outside the U.S. a lot more,” says Tiffany Su, a psychology major from China. “A lot of my friends are applying to Australia, England and Canada.”

During the campaign, Trump’s website called for eliminating the J-1 Visa Exchange Visitor program, which colleges use to bring in foreign scholars and sometimes students. Perhaps his administration won’t go that far. But the president is both expressing and triggering anti-immigrant sentiment. In March, a group of Muslim students who sought an appointment with Oklahoma state Rep. John Bennett were told they would have to fill out a questionnaire first that included questions such as, “Do you beat your wife?”

Such open hostility may be rare, but foreign students and their parents are sensitive to it. “My concern is not that my job is getting harder,” says Glassman, the University of Missouri-St. Louis international student program director. “My concern is that the U.S. is squandering an enormous advantage that we’ve had for several generations, that we become less a destination of choice for skilled and talented people.”

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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