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4th Nov 2020

Report urges US educators to innovate in the face of declining international enrolments

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • The trend of declining international enrolments in the US will be here for some time, says report
  • Innovation and expanded partnerships will be essential to future growth
  • Reducing global engagement and infrastructure as a cost-cutting measure may backfire and prompt further losses in terms of global market share, as other countries keep competing despite the pandemic

A new NAFSA report says that because international enrolment in the US is no longer following a growth trajectory, higher education institutions in the country must embrace new strategies. The report, Factors Influencing International Student Enrollment Growth and Decline: A Multi-Factor Analysis of 2 Decades of Data with Implications for the Future, notes that a rebound any time soon is unlikely:

“It is a foregone conclusion that international student enrolment will continue to suffer for the foreseeable future. As the world continues to grapple with the effects of the global pandemic, it is clear that that US higher education institutions must realign, rethink, and rebuild despite diminishing resources, or they will be sidelined.”

COVID-19 is of course the most immediate threat to international enrolments, but as the report notes, the US was already losing ground as the #1 destination for students from around the world before the pandemic. Most significantly, demand has been falling from a key source region: Asia. And while President Trump’s administration has grown more wary of international students – particularly from China and also Muslim-majority and African nations – countries such as Canada, Australia, and the UK have been steadily increasing the visa and immigration routes as well as work opportunities they can offer in a bid to become more attractive to students – and it’s working. All three destinations have gained share or are poised for further growth in the year ahead.

The extent of the loss that a substantial decline in foreign enrolments would inflict on the American economy is clearly articulated in this passage from the report:

“International students contribute nearly US$41 billion to the US economy, making education services the nation’s fifth largest service export. This is significantly higher than our nation’s top agricultural export—soybeans (US$21.6 billion)—and approaches the value of pharmaceuticals (US$51 billion). Ultimately, international students’ spending supports more than 455,000 jobs, or three US jobs created or supported for every seven international students in the United States.”

Innovation and partnerships

NAFSA collaborated with the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and INTO University Partnerships “to triangulate data from nearly a dozen publicly available and credible sources to determine statistically significant factors influencing international student enrolment growth and decline over a period of two decades.” The aim of the data analysis was to inform higher educations about what’s actually driving declining international enrolments and what will be necessary to adjust to what seems to be the new trend for the near future at least.

The report emphasises that “innovation will be key to finding new revenue streams, such as fee-funded programmes, micro courses, and digital badges” and that “campus leaders will need to adopt lean management strategies similar to those employed within manufacturing and healthcare to ensure resources are maximised in their utility while minimising waste.”

Institutions will be well served if they can find ways of delivering their programmes to international students outside of the US. This model is already well established in the UK as well as China and NAFSA says it makes great sense given that educators currently face serious barriers in bringing in international students because of US border restrictions.

More broadly, the authors advocate for expanded partnerships for US educators:

“Institutions will find their future success in attracting international enrollees to be directly dependent on the quality of partnerships they have with third-party enablers such as foreign institutions, recruitment agents, and pathway providers that have the on-the-ground expertise, capacity, and contacts necessary to achieve results.”

A serious dilemma that US institutions will face is whether they should become more aggressive in their international recruiting strategies or very much less so as a strategy for addressing the financial implications of falling enrolments. The report suggests that the latter – i.e., scaling back international activities – would be an unhelpful decision in the long term, because it would inevitably weaken US educators’ competitive position vis a vis such countries as Canada, the UK, Australia, and China, making them still less able to attract students when the pandemic recedes. “Opportunities will inevitably surface after the chaos caused by the pandemic subsides,” notes the report, and pulling back on global infrastructure can only weaken US educators’ ability to pursue those opportunities.

Supporting students across time zones

Supporting international students is crucial and challenging at a time where so much learning is done online, with students sitting at their computers in other countries. Institutions should invest in tools and strategies to support international students who are not on campus, including “an expansion of online advising on immigration, academic, and other matters; dynamic student checklists that trigger communications and interventions based on whether or not certain factors are met; and improved access to academic and other campus resources.” Additionally, because so many enrolled international students are in different time zones during the pandemic, the authors say that working with counsellors in local markets to deliver support may be a worthwhile strategy to pursue.

Adapt to a new competitive mindset

Given the pandemic’s effect of lessening the research activities that greatly inform global university rankings, international students will be looking to factors other than rankings to decide which school they will choose. In addition, students have many more options in an online environment in terms of the education they will pay for – including many more low-cost options in their home countries. For that reason – and because so much recent research underlines the increasing priority students place on practical, career-oriented education and training – educators “will find it necessary to develop solutions that offer these students practical work experiences even if they never set foot in the United States”:

“These solutions may include the development of internship programmes with international alumni, partnering with for-profit and nonprofit organisations that specialise in the delivery of experiential learning, and greater engagement with companies based in the students’ home countries as well as companies based in the United States that have ties to the students’ home countries.”

Increase advocacy

As a whole, US educators need to step up in terms of advocating against immigration restrictions that decrease the ability of international students to come to the US, argues the report, and cooperate in demanding that a national strategy for international education be created (the US is the only major destination country that does not have one). At the same time as “COVID-19 reinforces the need for international research collaborations, intercultural education, and an understanding of global issues and trends,” the US is becoming more isolationist.

In essence, the NAFSA report emphasises that nothing is as it used to be for US schools and universities; their ability to recruit international students has never been more challenged. At the same time, innovation is a long-held value in the US and an enduring one despite the current crisis, and there is no doubt that we will see some fascinating examples of institutions that are able to pivot in effective ways and create new opportunities to attract international students. The report underlines how crucial data is to informing the best way forward.

For additional background, please see:

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