International students are choosing other countries besides the United States to study. That is certainly the general perception. However, the data shows a mixed story. According to the Institute of International Education, the number of international students studying in the United States is an all-time high (Morris, 2018). However, while elite institutions continue to see significant interest from international students, second-tier institutions are seeing declines and looking at strategies such as charging in-state tuition to international students as an incentive to retain and increase enrollment (Redden, 2018). Additionally, the new and first-time international student enrollment has been declining since the 2015-2016 academic year (Open Doors, 2018).
Open Doors, a study conducted annually by the Institute of International Education, surveys international students on reasons they choose to study in the United States and reasons why they chose not to. For those students who chose not to attend school in the United States, 83% identified the visa application process or visa delays or denials as a major factor in their decision, followed by 60% noting the “social and political environment in the U.S.” and 55% noting “cost” as a major factor (Open Doors, 2018).
From a policy perspective, the ability to streamline the visa process would likely make a significant impact on the ability of the United States to compete effectively for international students. Universities can mitigate the delay in the visa process by leveraging technology in international recruitment and education. Policymakers at both the federal and university levels must make the visa process easier by providing an integrated visa and enrollment process. Additionally, universities must leverage available technology to mitigate delays by allowing students to study in their home country and participate virtually in university education while the visa is pending. The federal government must generally improve the immigration and visa process, and for students specifically – expediting student visas from countries and student profiles that have limited security or financial risks to the country. Ideally, the reform would also provide a path to potential citizenship or permanent residency for master’s and doctorate program graduates.
Eastern Michigan University embarked on a “You are Welcome Here” campaign (Redden, 2018) that attempts to address the concerns noted by 60% of those students not attending programs in the United States, noting the social and political environment as a factor in choosing to study elsewhere and the 49% of students that noted they did not feel welcome in the United States in the Open Doors report (Open Doors, 2018). State and federal policymakers need to mirror these approaches and address the legitimate concerns of students, given the current political climate around immigration and international trade.
Finally, Redden (2015, 2018) notes that international students have often subsidized domestic students by paying higher tuition, with additional fees or differential tuition charged at some institutions. As cost is noted as a significant factor in the 2018 Open Doors report, state policymakers could mirror the approach taken by Eastern Michigan and extend in-state tuition to all students. Alternatively, states could eliminate differential tuition and extend in-state tuition for international students at their non-R1 research institutions to promote international student enrollment.
The combination of expediting the visa process, providing a pathway to permanent residency, and addressing social and cost factors at the state and federal level would reverse the trend and likely drive significant growth.
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