Undergraduate International Student Numbers Decline

Scholars of higher education have been throwing around the term “The Trump Effect” to explain the national phenomenon of rapidly declining numbers of international students. USF is no exception to the trend, but the issue is more complex than just President Donald Trump.

Since 2015, USF has seen a 27% decrease in international undergraduate enrollments. This is largely due to lower numbers of students from China, who make up over half of all international undergraduates.

But this decrease is having wider effects on the University. At a forum in April for faculty and staff hosted by the administration about the school’s budget, Jeff Hamrick, head of institutional budget and planning and finances, said the number of declining international students is one of five major pressures on USF’s finances in the coming year.

Hamrick said that changes in international student enrollment have been “transformative” for USF. This is in part because the University is highly dependent on tuition for income, while other schools can rely on other funding sources. The University is estimating that it will get 90% of its total income from tuition alone this year, according to the 2019 Fiscal Operating Budget.

Large contributors

Since international students receive less financial aid, they are large contributors to yearly revenue.

The discount rate, or proportion of tuition given back in financial aid for international students, is 10.7%, but 37.1% for domestic students, according to Michael Beseda, head of Strategic Enrollment Management (SEM).

For example, in fiscal year 2018, international students made up 15.8% of all tuition and fees for the school, according to data from the Center for Institutional Planning and Effectiveness. In fall 2018, though, international students made up just under 14% of the student body in both undergraduate and graduate populations. This 1.8% difference represents $8.2 million.

The decline in international students comes after years of steeply increasing numbers, which Beseda said was also mainly because of “explosive and unprecedented growth in students from China.” USF started recruiting early on by opening a Beijing office in 2011 before competition from other schools and countries picked up.

“International students from China and elsewhere enrich the educational experience for all at USF,” Beseda said in an email. “They also bring important financial resources in the form of tuition and other revenue.”


Trump’s effect

The recruitment push in China only lasted so long. In the fall of 2018, USF saw 300 fewer Chinese international students than the year before.

At the finances forum, Hamrick said, “It’s not just due to the Trump Effect, but it’s increasingly incredibly competitive to be recruiting in China and India. We were leaders going into that game, but now the competition has caught up with us.”

Beseda agreed. Schools in Canada, the U.K. and Australia have pushed recruitment in China, and this has “inhibited efforts to enroll these students” in the U.S., he said.

In addition to the competition, Beseda said, tensions between the U.S. and China are “‘dark clouds’ over our prospects in that area.”

Marcella DeProto, head of International Student and Scholar Services, said it is harder for international students to study in the U.S. because of changes in federal practices under the Trump administration. “We see formal policy changes, formal regulation changes, every few months maybe,” she said. “But we see different practices in the way the government is reviewing visa applications or reviewing a work authorization benefit. We can see those change any day almost.”

The rules have gotten stricter for offices like DeProto’s, who receives email updates daily from lawyers, various government agencies, the NAFSA Association for International Educators alerting them about federal policy changes.

For example, one policy change made it so international students start accruing days of unlawful presence as soon as they make one mistake, even if it is as minor as dropping a class. Students may be barred from reentering the U.S. for a period of time depending on how many days of unlawful presence they collect.

DeProto has also noticed a change in the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services subagency. “They have really taken it upon themselves to become almost a law enforcement agency instead of a paper processing agency,” she said.

Certain students are still coming to the U.S., despite the changes to the process. USF’s graduate enrollments for international students have increased by nearly a quarter since 2015, but this population is much smaller than their undergraduate counterparts. DeProto said this may be because U.S. colleges offer so many advanced degrees, unlike other countries.

Mustafa Zahid, a second-year graduate student from Saudi Arabia, said international students know that the U.S. government does not always reflect the opinions of educational institutions. “Unlike some other countries, the institutions here can issue their statements, they don’t have to agree with what the government is saying,” he said. “And that’s what we’ve been seeing, at least here at USF.”

DeProto said international students have still expressed concern over the political climate in the U.S., especially in the years directly after Donald Trump’s election. Students asked her if Americans really hated Muslims.

Nicolas Salmanaca is a marketing major from Colombia and is also an international student orientation leader. “[Trump is] creating this political climate of hate and rejection against immigrants, but he’s also decreasing the number of visas and green cards and citizenships,” he said. “One of the points of going to different countries is to get a working visa afterward, and it’s getting really hard with the Trump administration, so, I feel like students are choosing other countries.”  

The Solution

DeProto said the biggest thing schools can do to maintain international student populations is to ensure they have the best experience possible.

Junior Najiah Roslas, an economics major from Malaysia, said, “one of the major reasons why international students go to USF is they know someone who went there,” she said. “So, in a way, they feel more secure and they have more knowledge about USF.” She said she came because she knew alumni who had enjoyed their time at the University and talked to them at a college fair.

International students not only bring financial benefits, DeProto said, as they also create other opportunities for all students and bring diversity to the University’s culture. The Master’s in Data Science, for example, was developed in part thanks to huge amounts of interest from international students, she said.

USF is also focusing on recruitment more in India and the Middle East, and a “small factor” in this was the creation of an engineering school, according to Beseda. “Our goal is to enroll a very diverse (in every sense) engineering group,” he said in an email. SEM also added a staff member based in Mumbai to be in charge of India and the Middle East “to strengthen our enrollment efforts in this strategically important part of the world, further diversify our international enrollment, and out of awareness in global international student enrollment trends,” Beseda said.

Enrollment from India has doubled since 2015, currently at 117 students. “So, that sort of xenophobic, old concept of ‘international students take American students’ places in classrooms’ — well, they actually create them,” DeProto said. “It keeps our education industry growing, going, and from there American students also have more options of degrees.”

DeProto, Beseda, and multiple international students interviewed for this story all made a point of mentioning the added social and cultural advantages of having international students.

“The more that we know about other people the less fear there is,” DeProto said. “The more that we interact across national borders the more we will can be global citizens and think of the world instead of just our country or our family or our kind of people.”


One thought on “Undergraduate International Student Numbers Decline

  1. Alumni here. Very interesting story. I believe the news of how international students were treated unfairly across the country made lots of them consider the education is not worth it. I personally loved all my professors at USF, but also I’ve heard lots of stories. On top of the Trump administration, they don’t believe it is worth their dignity for a degree.

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