International Student Enrollment on the Decline

Vol. 17 No. 6

PSN eletter vol15 no9 internationaltravel

For the first time in over a decade, colleges and universities saw a 3.3% decline in international freshman students. Media sources were quick to pick up the story, pointing blame at President Trump’s administration.

However, the latest government study shows the decline began before the new president took office, leaving some to wonder if the well of opportunity has started to dry up.

One possible explanation for the dip in foreign students studying in the US could be in response to shutting down fraudulent programs. Specifically, many non-degree intensive English programs have been suspected for years to be counterfeit operations.

It comes as no surprise that many have been revealed to actually be illegal visa mills. This isn’t just problematic for the US—Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand have also cracked down on illegal English language programs.

Another possible explanation comes from ICEF Monitor. This service reports that Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) numbers have dipped severely among college undergraduate students. The authors suspect that this is in response to slowed growth from the Chinese market, paired with a dramatic decline in Saudi enrollments due to the Trump administration’s travel ban.

Yet, it’s not all bad news for college international programs. International student enrollment growth was seen in graduate programs and some specific areas of undergraduate study—mainly STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).

These possible explanations should silence the immediate need to panic. However, there are factors that can impact the future of these programs, such as population decline and poor institutional planning.

In terms of population decline, China, the largest source of international students for the US, is experiencing a population decrease due to its one-child policy. Currently there are 16.5 million 18-year-olds in China. It’s projected that there will be 15.5 million in ten years.

India, the second largest source of international students, is also projected to send fewer college-aged students over the next decade, yet only by a tenth. Some suspect that India will take the lead in students studying abroad in the years ahead.

Regarding poor institutional planning, colleges that flourished from international programs over the last decade but did not perform strategic, rainy-day planning have had to cut major areas of study from their curriculum. This change in offerings could also lead to lack of interest for future students.

An article published by The New York Times adds another layer of stress to this talking point. It reports that the overall, domestic college-student population is also experiencing a decrease. Last year, domestic enrollments in colleges were down 224,000, or 1%.

What this means for K–12 private-independent schools

Understanding the overall climate of the educational market is important. It signifies that now, more than ever, it’s critical that your international student program be strongly aligned with your school’s mission. In a slowing market with growing competition, only the strongest, most student-centered programs will attract interest.

Many private-independent schools don’t have strong missions supporting their international programs. They know it boosts their bottomline, but they can’t clearly define how it enhances the educational experience for either domestic or international students.

Many don’t have systems in place that fully integrate international students with the school’s culture, or policies for handling students when behaviors clearly clash with the mission. These will become more critical areas for international families when deciding where to send their children.

Take this moment to reflect on your program’s strengths and challenges. Can it withstand a decline in enrollment? How would that affect your school overall? How would that impact your student experience? What makes your program unique in comparison to the competition?

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Additional ISM resources:
International Program Newsletter Vol. 1 No. 1 Ok, You’ve Enrolled International Students: Now What?
The Source for Advancement Vol. 12 No. 3 Developing Your International Students’ Networking Skills
The Source for Business and Operations Vol. 16 No. 2 The 30-Day Rule Impacting Your International Student Program

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