Blog: Higher Ed Beat

Some Universities See Drop in International Applicants
College officials point to 'Trump effect'

For the first time since the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, some top universities are seeing their international student application numbers slide.

The change has been anecdotally attributed to the election of President Donald Trump, who has called for the construction of a wall along the Mexican border and pushed for a travel ban from six predominantly Muslim countries. These and other actions, some observers say, have signaled to some international students that they are not welcome in the U.S.

Leaders from the engineering schools at Penn State and Dartmouth University were joined recently by an international education expert to discuss their recruitment challenges during the Education Writers Association’s annual conference in Washington, D.C.

Whether the quantity of applicants overall in the U.S. has significantly decreased is hard to tell, as it’s too early to track those numbers, but what has changed are the tone and questions coming from applicants, said Allan Goodman, the president of the Institute for International Education.  

Now, with President Trump in office, Goodman said students looking to study in the U.S. have started asking new questions.

Red State or Blue?

“What we’re hearing is foreign students and their parents asking two questions: First, is the school i’m going to in a [politically] red state or a blue state? We haven’t heard that before,” Goodman said.

The second question: Does everyone in America own a gun? Sometimes more than any political headline, Goodman said the concern of gun violence seems to be first on everyone’s mind when individuals from overseas consider coming to the U.S. to study.

Goodman is the president of the Institute for International Education, an organization that has collected 100 years of data, tracking trends in international students in the U.S. Overall, the number of international applicants tends to increase as the years go on, and when they drop, there’s usually a specific reason to point to: changes in visa policy, for instance or a civil war or weakened economy in an applicant’s home country.

The most notable downturn in applications came after 9/11, and led to Goodman’s organization stepping in to help with the visa process for students.

A decline in international applications to American universities can have a negative impact on the economy. Bloomberg reported, for instance, that if President Trump’s travel ban takes full effect, colleges across the U.S. could lose up to $700 million each year in potential revenue. Northeastern University, Texas A&M University, Pennsylvania State University, and the University of Southern California stand to lose the most, as they host the most students from those countries affected, the story noted.

STEM Programs Especially Impacted

The Trump administration’s travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries took effect in late June, after the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily lifted legal blocks on the ban, as reported by The New York Times and elsewhere. But the high court decided to allow certain individuals — with what they discern to be “a credible claim or bona fide relationship with the U.S.” — to be allowed entry, with students covered under that clause, the New York Times reported.

Peter Butler, an associate dean at Penn State’s engineering school, said overall applications to his program were down 3 percent in 2017, compared with the prior year. Speaking at the EWA session, Butler cautioned that he cannot say for certain that  he slight drop should be attributed to rhetoric and policy from the Trump administration.  

Butler interviewed a handful of Penn State’s 9,500 international students to get an anecdotal feel for their perspective. Their largest concern, he said, was having employers sponsor them after graduation, fearing uncertainty about their legal status will deter organizations from hiring them.

A loss of international students would hit graduate engineering programs particularly hard at programs across the country, said Joseph Helble, Dartmouth’s dean of engineering, during the EWA session. At Dartmouth, Helble said typically about 55 percent of doctoral degrees and 45 percent of master’s degrees went to international students.

Of particular concern to Helble is the numbers he’s seeing — or isn’t seeing — in applications to the engineering program. This year, he was shocked to learn that applications were down 30 percent from the international pool.

The Dartmouth dean said he recently distributed a survey to engineering programs at other U.S. universities, to learn about any changes in their international applicants. Three-quarters of respondents told him they saw a concerning drop in their applicant pools, ranging from 6 percent to 30 percent.

‘Best of Both Perspectives’

If the drop-off persists, universities will have to being brainstorming how they can change their admissions policies to encourage more international applications, Helble said.

This loss could be devastating particularly for science and engineering programs, since he sees many international students bring a stronger foundation in math than their U.S. peers, and tend to have a more analytical perspective. This Helble said, complements the open-ended, creative style of learning he’s observed that U.S. students typically bring.

“The point of education,” he said, “is to bring the best of both perspectives together.”