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New insights on the effects of declining international enrolment on US universities

US higher education institutions have been for the past two academic years and many continue to remain (at least to a degree) rather concerned over the evidence of declining international student enrollment in US higher education. According to figures released by the Institute of International Education (IIE) last year, following several years of growth, new international student enrollment had declined by 3.3% for the academic year 2016/17, with reports that the decline reached an estimated of 6.9% in the autumn of 2017. In this context, a newly-released report by the World Education Services (WES) – Navigating a new paradigm for international student recruitment – comes to shed some light on how US institutions have been affected by these trends, and on what they are currently doing or might want to do, in order to try to counteract these developments. 
The report is based on 139 full responses to an online survey run by WES in late January – mid-February 2018 and addressing admissions professionals at US HEIs. Here are some of the key findings:
  • In total 53% of WES survey respondents saw a decrease in international student applications from the 2016/17 to the 2017/18 application cycle at their institution. Applications from China decreased the most (by 54%), followed by those from the Middle East and North Africa (by 50%), and from India (by 47%).
  • However, 28% of respondents reported an increase in applications from the previous year. 
  • In terms of actual enrolments, 50% of respondents saw a decrease in the total number of enrolled international students from the 2016/17 to the 2017/18 application cycle. 
  • At the same time, 29% saw an increase in the total number of enrolled international students from the previous academic year.
  • As for the next academic year, 45% of institutions anticipate a decrease in international enrollment for 2018/19, while 35% of institutions expect an increase. 
  • All regions except the North-East saw a greater decrease in international student applications and enrollment than an increase.
  • All in all, 52% of the survey respondents did not meet their international enrollment goals for the 2017/18 academic year. 
Therefore, most of the WES research findings confirmed the expectations in the field.  At the same time, and based on current practice, the authors of the report put forward a number of recommendations for counteracting measures, that span seven main areas of action: (1) diversifying recruitment targets (beyond China and India); (2) emphasizing a welcoming environment (e.g. via the national #YouAreWelcomeHere campaign); (3) providing support and resources (e.g. pre-arrival support, helping to manage safety concerns, and highlighting support services both on and off campus); (4) engaging more actively in virtual and social media outreach; (5) engaging the alumni network for recruitment; (6) addressing students’ financial concerns (e.g. through better information and expectations management); and (7) developing and maintaining partnerships that can either provide alternative routes to recruitment or facilitate entry. 
As US institutions might act along these lines to reverse the main trends, the field is waiting for the upcoming Open Doors report of IIE, which will give the definite country picture for 2017/18. 
WES report