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Survey confirms immigration fears turning students away from US HE

Anecdotal reports that several months of policy changes in the US, contentious rhetoric around immigration and attempts to freeze entry for foreign nationals from target countries are turning off prospective international students have been confirmed in a survey of nearly 300 international recruitment professionals at higher education institutions.

Indian international students at Education USA study fair, Kolkata, IndiaStudents at a study fair in Kolkata. AACRAO's survey showed several US higher education institutions have seen a decline in Indian student applications for fall 2017. Photo: Wikicommons/Biswarup Ganguly.

"The challenge for institutions is to craft messages that will reassure students and their families”

The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers’s Trending Topics Survey, released this week, lends further insight to preliminary data released last month.

In the final tally of 296 responses, 38% reported a decline in international applications for fall 2017. However, a further 35% said they had seen an increase, while 27% said applications had remained steady.

“The locations from where the highest levels of concern were reported correspond to the regions targeted in political rhetoric”

The variation is notable as a steady climb in international student numbers in recent years means more institutions will have anticipated a rise in applications.

Significantly, 32% said they had seen a decline in graduate applications and 24% in undergraduate applications from China; while Indian undergraduate and graduate applications were down at 26% and 15% of responding institutions respectively.

The release of the data follows reports that international applications are down across the University of California system for the first time in 12 years.

“Not since the post 9-11 period did the UC experience a decline,” commented Eddie West, director of international programs at UC Berkeley Extension, who said admissions officers at UC Berkeley had flagged the Middle East – the region from which AACRAO’s survey respondents reported the highest level of concern among students and parents – as one area from which international applications have fallen, as well as Pakistan. Indian applications to the UC schools, however, have risen.

“In any case it’s hard to see this situation improving any time soon, given the military strike in Syria and the deeply unwelcoming message the current administration in Washington DC continues to send to most of the rest of the world,” West said.

The full report reveals that immigration was the greatest source of worry for prospective international students and their parents across all regions of the world.

“Analysis of the survey responses by enrolment or geographic region did not vary the results in any significant way,” the report notes.

“However, the locations from where the highest levels of concern were reported correspond highly to the regions targeted in the political rhetoric of the past year.”

Nearly four in five international recruitment professionals surveyed reported students and families from the Middle East had expressed concerns about coming to study in the US. Forty-six percent said students and families from India were concerned, along with 36% for Asia (excluding India and China) and 34% for Latin America.

These concerns, however, weren’t shared to the same extent by African students and parents, the report observes. Unease expressed by this group centred on two key issues, it said: concern over discrimination based on students’ Muslim faith; and issues with visa processing, including processing and visa denials.

Among Middle Eastern students, immigration issues such as whether students would get a visa and perceived bias in the application process was the biggest worry, observed by 54% of respondents who said students and parents had expressed these concerns.

Feeling unwelcome was the second most commonly reported concern (28%) among this group, with survey participants citing anti-Muslim sentiment and discrimination as common themes; closely followed by political concerns over the US administration (25%).

In addition, 12% recruitment professionals noted students and families were concerned about employment – spurred by changes to the OPT program and H1-B visa – and 4% about the impact of economic conditions in their home country.

“Political rhetoric and the Executive Orders have added complexity to international recruitment efforts”

This pattern is broadly reflected among students and parents worldwide, though there was some regional variation.

In India, immigration was an even bigger worry, cited by 60% of respondents who reported concerns, with employment the second most commonly reported gripe (40%).

Uncertainty over changes to the H1-B visa has been keenly felt in India, given the key role the visa plays in the Indian IT industry.

In contrast, employment was only noted as a theme by 9% of respondents who had observed concern among Latin American students and parents; while worry over being made to feel unwelcome was more common (38%).

West predicted that students’ fear of feeling unwelcome may be reflected in where in the US they decide to study “with more families and students taking care to choose to study in states and regions where they might rightfully expect a greater degree of acceptance and inclusion”.

And Swaraj Nandan, director of KIC UnivAssist, a company that supports universities in their global engagement and international recruitment efforts, suggested that the outlook may be more positive than the survey suggests. Concern was high earlier in the year, when the executive orders on immigration were signed, but “Anecdotally, I am seeing the concern level reduce over the last month or so,” he said.

“Since then people have had time to see both sides- see the travel ban get challenged, the health care change defeated and there have been no changes to the H1-B and OPT programs yet,” he said, adding that for students on four-year programmes, the administration and its policies could change by the end of their studies anyway.

“So students and parents should not focus on the immigration piece, rather focus on which institution is a good fit and can provide them skills and knowledge to set them for the next 40 years,” he urged.

The report cautions against drawing definitive conclusions from reported application drops as “application numbers are but a single benchmark along the admissions cycle”.

“The data merely serves as an early warning sign of potential declines,” it notes.

However, it concludes: “It is clear that the political rhetoric of the 2016 election and the Executive Orders of the new administration have added complexity to the international recruitment efforts of US higher education institutions.

“The challenge for institutions is to craft appropriate messages to their recruitment regions that will reassure students and their families that an education in the United States remains a strong option.”

AACRAO’s survey was conducted in partnership with IIE, International ACAC, NACAC, NAFSA, and the College Board.

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