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Four in ten US colleges reporting a drop in applications for fall 2017

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • A recent survey of US colleges finds that 39% are reporting declining volumes of international student applications for fall 2017
  • The greatest declines are being reported for applicants from the Middle East, but significant number of US colleges are also reporting falling numbers of applications from the key Chinese and Indian markets
  • International educators are now closely watching the yield on fall 2017 applications – that is, the percentage of applicants who accept an offer of admission from a US college for fall

Only hours before it was to come into effect on 16 March, two US federal judges moved last week to block the Trump administration’s revised travel ban that would have affected citizens of six Muslim-majority countries. Even though the full effects of the travel ban have been blunted by such court rulings, international educators fear that some measure of damage, in terms of international perception of the openness of the US to international students, has already been done.

With that concern in mind, six higher education groups in the US – the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), the Institute of International Education, NAFSA, the Council of Graduate Schools, the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), and NACAC’s international subgroup, International ACAC – collaborated last month on a cross-member survey of US colleges.

An initial release of findings from AACRAO acknowledges that there are a variety of detailed enrolment reports issued annually by various partners in the February survey. However: “Because of the annual and in-depth nature of those reports, we will not see those numbers for many months. [The February survey] provides a snapshot of foreign applications to US higher education institutions, initiates a dialogue, and should assist institutions as they forecast and prepare for what might lie ahead.”

The survey gathered responses from 252 US colleges, with four of ten responding institutions (39%) reporting a drop in international application files for fall 2017.

The sharpest declines were reported for applicants from the Middle East, with 39% of responding colleges indicating falling numbers of undergraduate applications from the region, and 31% reporting declines in graduate applications. Those numbers will bear watching as the Middle East accounts for about 10% of all international enrolment in the US today, and, aside from softening enrolment from the key Saudi Arabian market, the region is also home to other important markets, notably Iran, that have been targeted by the recent US travel bans. “I’d say the rhetoric and actual executive orders are definitely having a chilling effect,” said Portland State University President Wim Wiewel in a recent email to media.

The survey also found evidence of falling application volumes from both China and India, which are easily the two largest sending markets for US higher education and together account for nearly half of all foreign students in America today. Roughly one in four respondents reported declining undergraduate applications from both India (26%) and China (25%). The effect was greater still with respect to graduate applications from China with 32% of institutions reporting a drop, whereas only 15% of responding colleges indicated falling numbers of graduate applications from India.

Survey respondents also reported widespread concerns on the part of students and families, and especially so in the Middle East. The most commonly cited concerns include:

  • A perception that visa rejection rates are increasing at US diplomatic posts in China, India, and Nepal.
  • A perception that the US is now less welcoming to foreign visitors.
  • Worries that further travel restrictions could be introduced in the future, whether via an expanded travel ban or other restrictive visa policies.

Those significant findings are balanced by the survey’s observation that most US colleges are still not reporting declines in application volumes for fall. “While a majority of institutions are not seeing decreases, steady increases in international applications and ensuing enrolments have become the norm for many colleges,” notes a related report from Inside Higher Ed. “And many institutions have based their financial plans in part on sustained increases in enrolments of full-paying international undergraduates.”

Admissions staff and international recruiters will now be watching close to see how the conversion rate for fall 2017 applications compares to previous years. A report in the The New York Times sets out the next important indicators for foreign enrolment in 2017/18: “Because application deadlines at several larger colleges had passed before Mr Trump’s travel ban was announced, some universities are more worried about the ‘yield’ — the number of students offered admission who end up enrolling.” Those numbers will become more clear after a national 15 April deadline for students to accept offers for fall admission.

The significance of that April milestone is underscored by the 77% of respondents to the February survey who “expressed concerns regarding application yield.”

AACRAO expects to release a more detailed report of survey findings by 30 March. For additional background in the interim, please see:

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