International Students: You Are Welcome Here!

#YouAreWelcomeHere—four simple words that are intended to extend an invitation to international students on behalf of the U.S. education sector. The idea originated with the organization Study Group and was transformed into a campaign by Temple University. Now, college presidents, school heads, teachers, athletic directors, and students are sharing this message of welcome amid a volatile international political climate and recent violence involving international students in the United States.

Currently, 22 independent schools have joined dozens of colleges and universities that are participating in the movement. To extend that message even further, Temple University, has joined with eight other U.S. colleges and universities—Concordia College (MN), Eastern Michigan University, James Madison University (VA), University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Purdue University Northwest (IN), Seattle University (WA), Shoreline Community College (WA), and Western New England University (MA)—to launch a national scholarship program for incoming international students for Fall 2019.  

With more than 1 million international students attending U.S. colleges and universities and another 94,000-plus studying at elementary and secondary schools, according to the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), international students bring great diversity to the student population and contribute nearly $40 billion to the U.S. economy. A recent decline in international applications, particularly at the graduate school level, has many fearful about the future growth of this essential market. Those fears are not unfounded. A recent article in the Christian Science Monitor, “International Students to US: Do You Really Want Us,” cites a study conducted by EAB/Royall & Co. that examines changing attitudes of international college students toward the United States. The study probes fears brought on by the immigration stance of the current administration, as well as safety concerns, with more than half of respondents noting that they are worried about their personal safety in the United States. Nearly the same percentage also note that it has become too expensive to study in the U.S. (See chart below).

What This Means for Independent Schools

Independent schools have the same concerns as colleges about potential decreases in international enrollments. According to a special report from SEVP on international students on F-1 visas attending private schools, NAIS member schools enrolled 31,122 students from countries around the globe in 2015, expanding from 13,881 in 2005. Although NAIS is currently in the process of obtaining the most recent data from SEVP, we know that there has been some growth in the number of international students in member schools since 2015, with China continuing to represent the greatest number of students. In a survey conducted by NAIS this past year, most school respondents noted steady or growing international enrollments, but many also reported growing fears about a potential slowing due to political challenges and growing competition.
  • 46% report steady international enrollment
  • 40% report an increase. Half of these schools feel the increase will continue.
  • 88% recruit students from China. Other locales from which most schools are likely to recruit include Hong Kong (71%), South Korea (69%), Vietnam (68%), and Germany (65%).
According to a report released by the Institute of International Education, as early as 2016, there were signs that the growth of the international market was slowing after a decade of explosive growth. The report noted that much of the growth in the high school market in the past decade was fueled by strong interest in U.S. higher education, with parents wanting to give their children the time to acclimate to life in the U.S. before college. Thus, declines in higher ed may begin to impact independent school enrollments. Competition among schools for international students also has intensified. In 2016, there were 2,800 K–12 schools in the U.S. vying for some portion of this market, with more than half of NAIS schools enrolling international students and many others looking to enter the market. Today, the number of schools hosting international students is beginning to outpace the growth in international students, driving even more intense competition.

The Enrollment Management Association (EMA), which also studies the international market, cited in a recent report some concerns emerging from international families. “Apart from the political environment, 44% of international families surveyed cited concerns about the cost of an independent school education, 43% about the distance from home, and 39% about safety concerns. Eleven percent of international families expressed concerns about not understanding the admission and application processes—and 34% (as compared to 8% of all respondents) are relying on the use of paid educational consultants to navigate the process.”

Initiatives in Canada, Australia

Other countries are using these concerns regarding the U.S. as an opportunity to recruit more international students. Canada, for instance, is exploring recruitment of international students as part of a larger national initiative “to reshape Canadian demographics by funneling well-educated, skilled workers through the university system. It is an answer to Canada’s aging population and slowing birth rate, and an effort to shore up the nation’s tax base.” They have made it easier for international students to become Canadian citizens thus broadening the appeal to study there beginning in high school. Canada offers lower tuition than many U.S. colleges, has a simpler visa process, more immigration pathways after graduation and better long-term job prospects. Case in point: The Canadian Parliament recently passed a law allowing international students to count part of their time as students toward their citizenship residency requirement. These initiatives contrast sharply with the messages coming from the United States. Not surprisingly, in 2017, the number of international college students in Canada grew 20 percent.

In contrast, some international students, particularly at the graduate level, are backing away from U.S. colleges and universities because they see their prospects for employment or later citizenship in the U.S. as nonexistent. Put bluntly, they are wondering whether the huge expense for a U.S. higher education is worth the cost.

Australia also has seen significant growth in the international student population. The number of international students in Australia has increased by 12 percent this year, and enrollment numbers continue to rise exponentially. “Department of Education figures show that in February, Australian universities, private colleges, English language courses, and schools registered a combined 542,054 enrollments. That compares with 305,534 total enrollments five years ago.”

The Importance of Attracting International Students

What do we lose as a society if international student enrollments continue to decline in the U.S.? There will be obvious economic impacts—international students contributed $39.4 billion to the U.S. economy in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce—and the loss of these students may drive up already high prices at colleges and universities. But there is even a higher price for the U.S. to pay—at a time when cross-cultural competency is crucial to student success in this global economy, a decline in international students means less exposure to those relationships that could build those competencies. A 2011 study in the International Journal of Intercultural Relations showed that students with international friendships had higher scores on open-mindedness and lower scores on intercultural communication apprehension. NAFSA, the association of international educators, underscores other benefits:
  1. Students who study in the U.S. enhance diplomatic relations between the U.S. and their home countries. According to NAFSA, “Foreign students and scholars who have studied in the United States become, at a minimum, informal ambassadors when they return home, sharing an appreciation for common values, counteracting stereotypes about the U.S. and enhancing respect for cultural differences. In some cases, future U.S. and foreign leaders will have studied together, creating even more direct diplomatic ties.
  2. As more companies require cross-cultural competencies as a must-have for employment, U.S. students who lack these opportunities because of homogeneous populations will find it harder to compete.
Clearly many international students still see the value of a U.S.-based education. Various surveys confirm that these students want educational experiences that differ from their home country, especially those that are in exam-driven education systems. And, they still see a U.S. education as giving them an advantage economically. For the good of all students, we need to join as one voice to get out the message that international students are welcome—and needed—here.

Additional Resources

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Donna Orem

Donna Orem is a former president of NAIS.