U.S. colleges struggle to attract foreign students amid immigration uncertainty
It's no longer "America First" for foreign students: half of the 25 largest public universities in the U.S. say undergraduate applications from abroad are stagnant; many schools depend on revenue from international students
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AMES, Iowa—Many U.S. colleges and universities, seeing declining numbers of applications from overseas, are trying to reassure potential international students they will be welcome on campus despite what they see in the news.
Schools are ramping up marketing efforts geared toward foreign students to combat growing fears that President Donald Trump’s stance on immigration reflects a United States that is becoming less welcoming to foreigners.
Nearly half the nation’s 25 largest public universities saw undergraduate applications from abroad fall or stagnate since last year, according to data colleges provided to The Associated Press in response to public records requests. Eight schools did not provide data, while six saw gains.
“Students are telling us that they don’t feel safe here in the United States. That they’re concerned about discrimination, racism,” said Katharine Johnson Suski, admissions director at Iowa State University, which is not among the largest 25. “This year it was a little more important to make sure that they felt comfortable with their decision.”
Iowa State is ramping overseas mailings to sell students on the school’s Midwestern charm. Similarly, Purdue University sent overseas applicants a note from two mayors touting Indiana’s “friendly smiles” and hospitality. On a recent trip to India, the president of Portland State University told prospective students they’d be safe on his campus. Dozens of other schools produced online videos to welcome foreign students.
Colleges and universities have received a financial boost in recent years from international students, who are typically charged higher tuition rates than American peers who live in state. Some schools have come to rely on revenue from foreign students, whose enrollment has climbed sharply over much of the past decade, according to federal data.
But the data obtained by the AP provide evidence enrollment figures at some schools could drop next fall.
International applications to the University of Arizona are down 24 per cent compared with this time last year; California State University, Northridge, is down 26 per cent. The University of Houston has seen a 32 per cent drop, although it’s still accepting applications and its numbers will likely rise.
The U.S. Department of Education did not immediately comment.
Philadelphia’s Temple University sparked a chain reaction in November when it posted an online video featuring students and staff members saying “You are welcome here” in multiple languages, set to upbeat piano music. Since then, more than 100 other schools have made similar videos and circulated them abroad. Temple also hosted seven overseas receptions for admitted students, more than in the past.
The University of Minnesota is considering a phone campaign. The University of Florida has produced videos featuring “global Gators” and is offering online video chats.
“Given the current climate, it seems like this is something which is even more important,” said Joseph Glover, provost at Florida. “Obviously we are concerned about the situation, like every other public university in the United States.”
Safety concerns are nothing new among international students, but many schools say anxieties have grown since Trump was elected. Some students have said Trump’s “America first” rhetoric and his proposal to ban immigration from six majority-Muslim nations have given them pause. Some application deadlines fell before the election, but even Trump’s campaign rhetoric cast doubts, experts say.
Students in India have been particularly alarmed, especially after a gunman shot two Indian men at a Kansas bar in March, killing one, after allegedly saying “get out of my country.”
Portland State President Wim Wiewel was in India soon after the shooting to meet prospective students, and the discussion quickly turned to safety. Wiewel and his wife reassured families that Portland is friendly to foreign visitors.
“People in America recognize that even though there are a few crazies around, it’s not like it’s open season on Indians or Muslims,” Wiewel said. “Having us talk to them totally took away their fears. But the problem, of course, is we can’t talk to everyone.”
Some government officials are trying to tackle the problem, too. Several of the videos feature cameos from state governors or congressional members. A top official from America’s embassy in India penned a newspaper column last week stressing that “U.S. colleges and universities take pride in providing safe and welcoming environments.”
Along with India, fewer applications have been coming from China and Saudi Arabia, which previously sent large numbers to American colleges. Experts say factors at play include economic turmoil in China and India, but some have blamed the downturn on a “Trump effect.”
Officials at the University of New England say Trump’s election has complicated plans to recruit Moroccan students. At a February open house in Tangier, the election was a frequent concern.
“Several students wearing hijabs wondered whether they would be welcome in the United States, given the election of Donald Trump and the rhetoric they were hearing,” said Anouar Majid, vice-president for global affairs at the private school in Biddeford, Maine. “We assured them that the United States is very welcoming.”
When he applied to the University of New England, 17-year-old Aymane Lamharzi Alaoui was worried about discrimination, he said. Since then, he has spoken with family members in Boston and believes Americans are more welcoming than some of Trump’s comments suggest.
“I know there’s an increase in xenophobia and racism in the past couple of months in the U.S.,” he said in an interview. “I’m sure there are some places where I wouldn’t be very welcome, especially places in the southern United States, but I think most of the country is very tolerant.”
For most colleges, it’s too early to know how many overseas students will enrol next fall. But many say any loss could be a blow.
At Iowa State, where applications are down 23 per cent, international students bring valued diversity, said Suski, the admissions director. And there is also the revenue they provide.
“There will,” Suski said, “be a financial impact on our campus come this fall.”