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“A challenging road ahead” for US HEIs – WES

Many US higher education institutions report international enrolments declines and while considering the interplay of factors such as rising fees and global competition, many attribute the challenges to the political environment, a new report by WES has found.

HEIs are worried the current political climate is deterring students. Photo: Skeeze/Pixabay

The report confirmed enrolments and applications are down across HEIs

Seeking to provide “evidence-based” insights to the changes in enrolment patterns in the US, the report surveyed 270 higher education professionals in January and February 2018. The results are based on 139 responses.

“The political environment certainly plays a significant role in declining international enrolment”

The study tried to understand the role of the US political climate in shaping international student recruitment, and how institutions are gearing up to face declines in new enrolments, as evidenced in the latest IIE Open Doors report.

The main findings of the report confirmed in part what organisations and media have been reporting: enrolments and applications are down in the majority of campuses.

However, respondents seemed divided when asked about future forecasts: 51% said they were optimistic, while 49% said they envisaged further declines. About a quarter of respondents (28%) reported year-over-year increases in international student applications.

Responded acknowledged a series of factors at play: rising tuition costs and increased global competition, for example, but also loss of government scholarship schemes in source countries.

However, 71% said they attributed their enrolment challenges to the current political climate.

“The political environment certainly plays a significant role in declining international enrolment, not just in terms of student perceptions, but also in the public policies that are manifestations of this environment,” WES research manager and co-author of the report Paul Schulmann told The PIE.

The report indicates that concerns about changes in visa policies and post-study work opportunities were major factors at play for students.

“While students are increasingly conscious of how the political dynamics of the U.S. could impact their ability to study and work, they are also aware of the lower cost, high quality options rapidly proliferating abroad,” Schumann explained.

The report also offers recommendations to the US international education industry.

The first is to emphasise messaging that conveys a welcoming image of the US. The #youarewelcomehere campaign, for example, has been deemed effective to reassure international students by 86% of survey respondents.

Also, since 45% of respondents reported that rising tuition fees are a challenge to recruitment, WES advises that institutions should address students’ financial concern and provide support. The introduction of lower fees, as Eastern Michigan University announced this week, could be “hugely impactful,” Schulmann said.

“Resting on laurels and hoping for the best is a losing strategy”

“Inherent to this policy is the view that the value of international students exceeds their direct economic contributions to higher education institutions,” he said.

“It’s an enlightened view that I hope more institutions and educational systems will adopt whole-heartedly.”

The report also recommends universities consider the long-term impact of enrolment decline. Beyond engaging with global alumni and diversifying marketing strategies, it is worth developing partnerships that can facilitate entry – with community colleges or secondary schools, for example.

Last but not least, institutions should diversify their recruitment targets, the report recommends. Student inflow from any country is prone to fluctuations and US institutions – like other destination countries – are mostly dependent on influx from China and India, which have seen a decrease over the past two years.

“It’s not surprising that institutions would be hesitant to disrupt a strategy that has worked in the past,” Shulmann explained.

“Now that the flaws of a one or two market strategy are clearer, schools are more willing to approach recruitment differently.”

Schulmann thinks institutions are up for the challenge of diversifying their source markets and said some have already taken action, as evidenced by 60% of respondents planning to prioritise Latin America and the Caribbean.

Asked about a positive, promising finding for the future, Schulmann said that a positive future will depend on the actions the industry will take to weather the storm.

“A lot of the findings portend a challenging road ahead.  Resting on laurels and hoping for the best is a losing strategy,” he said.

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