By: Sunil Kukreja

With Asians forming the bulk of international students studying in the United States, President Donald Trump’s election and the resurgence of overt nativist sentiment are stirring growing apprehension among prospective students just as US institutions of higher learning start to run dry of domestic enrollees.

Overseas students pour an estimated US$30 billion into the domestic economy, a not-inconsiderable amount when US schools are increasingly unable to meet their enrollment targets.

Students from Muslim-majority countries – Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, etc. – in particular have been spooked and are considering other countries as an option amid fear that anti-immigrant rhetoric would translate into prejudice and targeting of foreigners. Those fears have been heightened by incidents such as the senseless killing of an Indian engineer in Olathe, Kansas, last June and the wounding of two other men by a gunman under the impression he was shooting at Iranians.  

There is also considerable. uncertainty about the H-1B visa program, which has enabled international students to stay on in the US and gain work experience in their area of specialization. Trump has voiced skepticism about the program. 

Those uncertainties have apparently led to a decline in the overall number of international students in the US, albeit by a modest 2.2 percent.  In addition to the changed political climate in the US, other known factors impacting the overall number of international students include the rising cost of higher education and competition from other educational hubs both within Asia and elsewhere.

Since the mid-1970s, there has been a steady if not always consistent increase in the overall number of Asian students, with 2016-17 being the highest at 5.3 percent of students enrolled. Of the 10 leading countries sending students to the US, the top four are Asian (China, India, Saudi Arabia, South Korea while Vietnam, Taiwan, and Japan are part of the group rounding off the top 10).  Although Chinese and Indians dominate the flow with 47 percent, within Asia, smaller markets such as Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Vietnam, are seeing double-digit increases in the percentage of students opting for the US, while also having relatively sizable numbers of students in the flow.

Domestic Students Getting Scarce

Despite the recent dip in numbers, other trends in the US may in fact bode well for prospective international students and especially those from Asian countries. They are starting to need those foreign enrollees. For example, in 2017 only 34 percent of colleges and universities met their new-student enrollment targets – a  3 percent drop from the preceding year and an 8 percent decline from 2015.

The challenge is particularly acute for many of the relatively smaller private colleges, fueled in no small part by a significant drop in high school graduates across many states. 

To be sure, these flat enrollment trends among domestic students are also believed to be a function of cost barriers that put a college education out of the reach of many middle and working-class families. In a climate of heightened enrollment challenges, and a tightening demographic of the traditional college age population, it is no surprise that many colleges and universities across have sought to look overseas to augment their prospective student pipelines.

In such a climate, it seems quite likely that international students – and especially Asian ones – will remain a key consideration for many of the institutions that already have a good track record of serving this student population, Trump or no Trump. While Asian students are more inclined pursue graduate studies, especially in the sciences, data suggest that the number of Asians interested in undergraduate education abroad – and specifically in the US – is robust.

Further, there has also been a noticeable uptick in efforts to recruit more Asian students, including among relatively smaller liberal arts (and primarily baccalaureate degree granting) institutions, which thus far service only 3 percent of the US student population.

Nonetheless, these institutions are a desirable option among Asian international students studying in the US. To be sure, some are clearly far more committed and successful at fostering the internationalization and inclusiveness of their respective campuses.

Arguably institutions under the most acute enrollment pressures may be well served to not deemphasize, let alone forgo, the potential that recruiting international students provides for mitigating their enrollment challenges. This may be especially so for those that haven’t fully leveraged their reputation, quality, and other competitive advantages to systematically recruit and enrich their campuses with international students.

Yet, as the National Association for College Admission Counseling notes, colleges and universities would be well served not to turn to international recruitment as a panacea for their enrollment woes.  Although the motivation to tilt toward greater inclusion of international students from Asia and elsewhere for many with historically low representation may appear daunting, the timing in fact is good although smaller schools, particularly ones that grant baccalaureate degrees with a limited history of recruiting internationally may find navigating the terrain to be demanding.

However, with college recruitment becoming a burgeoning industry, many institutions with previously limited experience may actually be well poised to call on some of the expert services now at their disposal to counter the staffing, economies of scale, and specialization deficit that have arguably historically set them at a disadvantage.

Indeed, partnering with international recruitment agencies has become a growing practice in higher education and Asian students can only expect to be beneficiaries of what is likely to be more concerted efforts on the part of US universities to further penetrate the Asian student market.

Given that the competition for Asian students is only going to intensify, colleges and universities are also likely to rethink some of their conventional tuition discounting and financial aid practices.  While federal and state provisions currently limit international students from accessing publicly funded student financial aid, leveraging students’ ability to secure non-federal aid will likely become increasingly more important, especially if these prospective students are also now being lured by other institutions from Europe, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere.

With the globally mobile student population expected to reach more than 7 million by 2025, a substantial number be students from across Asia. US based universities are no doubt going to remain vital to servicing them for years to come, as they will no doubt be depending on Asian students to overcome some of their domestic enrollment challenges.

Asian students will no doubt continue to enrich the learning environment on American campuses, while providing a significant infusion of revenue into the higher education economy. There is little doubt that forward looking institutions will be looking to consolidate their share of the Asian student market, potentially a mutually beneficial scenario, provided the federal government allows it under the current administration.

Sunil Kukreja is professor of sociology and dean of faculty at the University of Puget Sound, a private liberal arts college in Tacoma, Washington.