College admissions under pressure in the US: International numbers down for some

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • A recent survey finds that only about a third of US colleges were on track to meet enrolment targets for 2017/18 as of 1 May
  • A separate poll highlights that 40% of responding US colleges are seeing declines in international student numbers this fall
  • An increasing proportion of colleges are planning to expand recruitment efforts going forward, and to more actively manage admissions files to help drive conversions and yield throughout the admissions pipeline

For colleges and universities in the US, 1 May is the traditional benchmark date for measuring whether or not enrolment goals for the coming year have been met. The ideal case is that by that point the incoming class has been set for the following September.

However, an annual survey by Inside Higher Ed and Gallup finds that only about a third (34%) of responding admissions directors reported hitting their enrolment goals as of 1 May. Just as tellingly, 85% of senior admissions staff say they were “very” (55%) or “moderately” (30%) concerned about reaching institutional targets this year.

These top-line findings are consistent with last year’s survey, which found that 37% of respondents had hit their targets by the 1 May benchmark (down from 42% the year before), and 84% were concerned about hitting targets for 2016/17.

This year’s survey was conducted over July and August and drew 453 responses from college officials in the US.

It paints a picture of continuing pressure on college enrolments in the US, especially outside of a top tier of research institutions whose high profile helps to attract a more stable stream of local, out-of-state, and international applicants. The survey also suggests that many institutions plan to respond to declining applicant pools by stepping up recruitment efforts, particularly with respect to transfer students, out-of-state prospects, and student segments that may be underserved otherwise, including minorities and those recruited with merit scholarships.

A significant percentage of admissions officers in this year’s survey are also signalling the intention to expand international recruiting, even as nearly a third (31%) indicated that they anticipate a decline in international student numbers in the years ahead.

The survey highlights a “Trump effect” aspect to this finding, as three in four respondents (76%) agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that, “The statements and policies of President Trump make it more difficult to recruit international students.”

Even so, responding admissions officers also expressed some concern about the extent to which US institutions have come to rely on full-fee-paying international undergraduates. Nearly half (45%) agreed or strongly agreed that US institutions have become too dependent on foreign undergrads. And roughly the same proportion (47%) agreed that the US has in general become too reliant on China and India as sending markets.

Measuring international numbers this fall

The Inside Higher Ed/Gallup survey’s overarching findings with respect to international recruitment are underscored by a second August 2017 poll, this time from The Chronicle of Higher Education and the Association of International Education Administrators (AIEA).

Of the 85 institutions responding to the Chronicle-AIEA survey, just over 40% reported a decline in international undergrad numbers for this fall of between 5% and 10%. And half (49.4%) said that they missed their international recruitment targets for this year.

An accompanying commentary from the Chronicle notes that, “The findings of the survey, conducted in the first weeks of the new academic year, are not the enrolment Armageddon that many feared after the Trump administration moved this year to ban travellers from a half-dozen predominantly Muslim countries, and stepped up vetting of international visitors, including those using student visas.”

“Still, the survey — as well as interviews with a number of administrators — hints at potential trouble ahead…the White House attempted to impose the travel ban in January, deep into the admissions cycle, when students had already decided to study in America and many had applied to colleges. That timing might have blunted the so-called Trump effect on this fall’s incoming class, educators say, but it raises the possibility that, a year from now, international enrolments could truly take a hit.”

Whether through more active management of admissions files to help drive yield, or through new recruitment initiatives, the overall impression that one gets from the Chronicle-AIEA survey is that many US institutions are going to be more active marketers as they pursue their enrolment targets for 2018/19. “Many colleges that held the line on enrolments did so by doubling down on yield, intensifying efforts to ensure that admitted students actually enrolled,” adds the Chronicle. “In effect, they were running just to stay in place.”

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