International enrollment has dropped at some Ohio colleges, echoing national declines that some attribute to the current U.S. political and social climate under the Trump administration and competition from other countries.
At Ohio State, university-wide international enrollment is down about 2.5% compared to 2018. But the more than 6,570 international students enrolled this school year is still the second-highest number in the past 10 years.
Kent State University saw an increase in its number of international students in 2015, according to figures provided by the school. But those numbers have declined each year since, down about 48 percent from 3,002 in 2015 to 1,558 in 2019.
"We anticipated most of the drop of the last few years, specifically because Saudi Arabia and China reduced their funding in support of students coming to the United States and because of changes in visas to students coming from India," said Eric Mansfield, executive director of university media relations for Kent State. "We also estimated that some of those who did not return to campus were students who just chose not to continue their education, much like the traditional student body where some students decide not to take classes for a semester. "
He added, "Our international enrollment reached an all-time high of about 3,000 in the fall of 2016, and while smaller in numbers, we still consider our current international presence strong and expect that it will grow in the years ahead as we focus our recruiting efforts to showcase the world-class education that Kent State has to offer."
Ohio University’s international enrollment has decreased nearly 34%, from 1,743 students in 2015 to 1,153 students in 2019.
International student enrollment at the University of Akron has decreased nearly 27% since three years ago, down to 837 students this year from 1,145 students in 2017.
Yet overall international enrollment at Ohio’s public universities has steadily increased over the past decade, aside from one small drop in 2018, according to data provided by the Ohio Department of Higher Education (ODHE). Out-of-state student enrollment has also increased.
"The positive thing from my perspective is if we have more students coming from out of state to Ohio, we at least have a better opportunity to keep them in Ohio and to be part of Ohio’s future economy," ODHE chancellor Randy Gardner said.
The decreases in international students at some Ohio universities are similar to national trends. New international student enrollment in the U.S. was down 6.6% in the 2017-18 school year, the most recent data available from International Education Exchange, which publishes its annual Open Doors report on international student enrollment each November.
Overall international student enrollment increased in the 2017-18 school year, the 2018 Open Doors report said. But it was the smallest year-over-year increase since 2005-2006, when overall international student enrollment had decreased over the previous year.
A number of factors have contributed to national decreases in new international students, education leaders say.
Rachel Banks, director of public policy for NAFSA: Association of International Educators, pointed to U.S. policy as contributing to the uncertainty for international students.
"Clearly the policy environment is not welcoming for international travelers at the moment," she said. "Starting with the travel ban in January 2017, that really sent a message out to the world that there’s not certainty for you to come here as an international traveler."
Under President Donald Trump’s administration, the travel ban restricts citizens of Iran, Libya, North Korea, Venezuela, Syria, Yemen and Somalia from entering the U.S.
Some U.S. colleges are also reporting fewer Chinese students this school year amid ongoing tensions between the two countries over economic tariffs, the Associated Press reported. The administration has also raised concerns about Chinese students stealing intellectual property.
For most international students, the uncertainty about studying in the U.S. comes with a four-or-more-year commitment to pursue undergraduate, masters and doctoral programs.
"Students increasingly start to seriously think, ‘Do I want to start on this journey if I don’t have the certainty that I can complete this journey?’" Banks said.
International students can also bolster a college’s bottom line, because they typically pay out-of-state tuition rates that can be double to triple that of in-state students. Fewer international students can be "very disconcerting" for a university, from a financial perspective, Banks said.
There’s also strong competition for international students across the globe, Banks said, pointing to increasing international student enrollment in countries including Canada and Australia. Both of those countries, for example, offer post-graduate work visas allowing students to stay for several years, depending on the degree awarded.
"While we’re struggling to attract and welcome students here, our competitors are very active and aggressive in marketing their programs," she said.
According to a fall 2018 enrollment survey from International Education Exchange, 83% of institutions attributed declining new international enrollment to problems with visa delays and denials, 60% attributed it to the U.S. social and political climate, and 59% attributed it to student decisions to enroll in another country.
Some college officials have said students seeking visas are encountering longer delays under the Trump administration.
Ohio State’s first-year class this fall saw a nearly 32% decrease in international students compared to last year’s incoming class. But university administrators say that drop was intentional after a record-high number of international students in the 2018 incoming class.
In 2018’s freshman class, international enrollment was up about 300 students over the previous year, said Stephanie Sanders, associate vice president for Strategic Enrollment Planning at Ohio State.
"That was a bit larger than what we actually expected," Sanders said. "So this year our goal was to have a slightly smaller freshman class and fewer international students. We are actually very pleased with where we ended up."
Educators and administrators agree international students contribute to a diverse university community and student experience.
"There’s the learning that goes on in the classroom ... and then certainly what happens outside the classroom, where I imagine that most of our students have stories to tell about roommates or classmates that are very different than themselves and that is a part of what we offer," Sanders said.
The work to attract students from all over never stops, she said.
"We’re always evaluating our messaging and looking to identify new markets, particularly out of state and out of country, and so that work will always continue, no matter what," Sanders said.
Since only 2% of U.S. students study abroad each year, more international students on U.S. campuses can mean more exposure to individuals who have different backgrounds, different cultures and different perspectives, Banks said.
"To know that we’ve got declining numbers of international students, we’re essentially depriving us students (of the opportunity) to engage the world," she said.
Contact Jennifer Smola at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jennsmola.