WENR, March/April 2003: International Student Recruitment Since 9/11

by Joseph J. Hindrawan


In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 2001, it was widely anticipated that the international student recruitment effort of U.S. colleges and universities would suffer a grave setback.
It was believed that many foreign students would be reluctant to study in the United States out of fear for their safety, and that new anti-terrorism measures instituted by the federal government would severely restrict access to American higher education by students from other countries, particularly those from the Middle East as well as South and Southeast Asia.
In some cases, of course, these concerns eventually proved to be well founded. Many intensive English programs, to cite one example, have suffered major enrollment losses since 9/11.
Over the past year, moreover, mandatory security checks caused severe delays in the issuance of visas to students from countries on the Department of State’s “watch list.” Many students from countries in the Middle East, as well as Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia, faced delays of three to six months, or outright denials of their visa applications.
In addition, universities with programs in so-called sensitive fields, ranging from biochemistry to nuclear physics, may be prevented from enrolling foreign students from certain countries due to new restrictions imposed by the Interagency Panel for Advanced Science and Security (IPASS). The new Bioterrorism Prevention Act will result in greater scrutiny of foreign scientists in the United States and may also affect the recruitment of foreign researchers and scientists.
Yet despite all this, the good news is that the United States continues to draw ever-larger numbers of foreign students to its colleges and universities—at least for now. As the Institute of International Education [2] (IIE) cited in its annual Open Doors [3] report in November 2002, the number of international students enrolled in U.S. higher education increased by 6.4 percent for the second consecutive year, growing to a new record high of 582,996 for academic year 2001–2002 (read editor’s note) 1.
This continues a longstanding trend; Open Doors reports that since 1993 international enrollments have increased nearly 30 percent for every type of higher-education institution.

Fall Surveys Show Numbers Increasing Despite Fears


IIE’s follow-up survey of 324 institutions conducted in October 2002 resulted in widely varying responses, with more than half of the participating campuses reporting “steady or growing enrollments but 42 percent reporting declining number.” A cross-check of 10 leading host institutions for international students indicated that, on average, enrollments in fall 2002 were up by 4 percent over fall 2001. Also encouraging was the finding that the number of international applications continued to increase at a large percentage of the institutions surveyed.
“These results seem to suggest that existing trends found in the Open Doors reports are likely to continue. The results do not present either a major shift in the direction of more international student enrollments or a shift towards fewer enrollments. Thus, it is likely that we will see enrollment increases as we have in the past several years,” the IIE report concluded.
Perhaps more surprising in the October 2002 IIE survey is the finding that “enrollments by students from selected major Islamic countries are generally the same as for the previous year,” though enrollments from a few countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, suffered a sharper decline. Most of the respondents to IIE’s survey have not seen a significant drop in enrollments from the other countries whose students have been the focus of special scrutiny.
Another fall 2002 survey, conducted by the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant College’s (NASULGC) Commission on International Programs, yielded results similar to those in the IIE survey.
The 61 member institutions responding to the NASULGC survey reported an overall 2.8 percent increase in their international undergraduate enrollment, a 6.8 percent increase in their international graduate enrollment and a total international enrollment increase of 5.5 percent as of fall 2002. Respondents noted severe delays in visa issuance for students from the aforementioned Muslim countries, as well as from China.
The IIE and NASULGC survey data are in line with our experience at the University at Buffalo [4] (UB), The State University of New York. While our overall international enrollment in fall 2002 was an all-time high at 3,272 students, we did experience small declines in the numbers of new undergraduate and graduate international students.
The single-biggest reason for these declines was visa denials and delays. This problem prevented many Malaysian transfer students and many Chinese graduate students from enrolling at UB in the fall. Most of the Malaysian students were able to get their visas and enroll in the spring 2003 semester; as a result, the total number of new transfers enrolled in spring 2003 increased by 84 percent over the previous spring. However, visa delays and denials remain a serious problem for Chinese students and scholars.
UB’s experience is also consistent with that of other U.S. institutions in terms of the limited impact recent events have had on enrollments from the Middle East. Our university has seen only marginal declines in the numbers of students from countries in the Middle East. However, during visits to the Middle East in fall 2002 and spring 2003 our recruiters report that students in the region remain very interested in U.S. higher education, albeit with some concern about being subject to unfair treatment by the authorities once they are here.
Like many other American universities, UB has seen a rapid rise in the enrollment of students from India. Since 2001, Indian students have been the largest group of internationals at UB. In fall 2002, their number increased to 750, less than 20 percent of whom are undergraduates.
Competitors Take A Bite Out of U.S. Market Share
It has been reported in various publications, including WENR [5], that visa denials and delays have led some students who had intended to study in the United States to enroll in institutions in third countries, typically Britain, Australia or Canada.
At the beginning of February 2003, the British Council [6] reported that undergraduate programs in Britain admitted 24,398 international students in 2002—20 percent more than in 2001. The total number of international students enrolled in British higher education grew to 232,760, or 45 percent of the number in the United States.
The British Council attributes the increase in part to a streamlining of visa procedures for study in Britain, which had an especially large impact in India and China. In addition, Britain has relaxed its work regulations for international students and provided more scholarships for them. It is also generally easier to do short-term academic programs in Britain than in the United States (as reported by Kate Galbraith in The Chronicle of Higher Education [7], Feb. 5, 2003).
In recent years, no country has been as aggressive in its pursuit of international students as Australia, and the results have been impressive. IDP-Education Australia [8], an organization that operates a network of recruitment offices throughout the world, reports that 143,788 international students were enrolled in Australian universities as of September 2001—up from some 60,000 in 1996 (IDP-Education Australia Web site).
The number of international students in Australian higher education has been growing by 15 to 20 percent per year. In 2001, international students were 18 percent of the total university enrollment in Australia. More than 80 percent of the international students enrolled in Australian higher education are from Asia, with large numbers from China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and India.
Australia is currently the third most popular destination for international students, after the United States and Britain. Among English speaking countries, Australia has the highest ratio of international students per capita enrolled in higher education.
IDP-Education Australia claims that the growth in international student enrollments in Australia is “unlikely to be seriously affected by global terrorism, largely because of Australia’s reputation as a safe and secure study destination.” However, recent changes in that country’s visa regulations may reduce the rate of growth in international enrollments, particularly from China and India.
Increasing competition from well-organized recruitment programs in Australia, Britain and Canada and decreasing market share for the United States were concerns taken up by the NAFSA [9] task force that authored the recent report “In America’s Interest: Welcoming International Students.”
While noting the increases in international enrollments in the United States over the past two years, the NAFSA task force issued this warning: “Although the absolute numbers are increasing, U.S. market share is going in the opposite direction. According to IIE, the U.S. share of internationally mobile students—the proportion of all international students who select the United States for study—declined by almost 10 percent from 1982 to 1995 (39.2 to 30.2 percent).”
In a recent report of its own, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) noted an even steeper drop-off in the U.S. share of international students worldwide between 1995 and 1999—a decline of 9 percent to 33 percent. During the same period, Britain, Australia and Canada all made significant gains (Newsweek, December 2002).
Foreign Students Face Barriers to U.S. Education
The NAFSA report concludes, “The international student market has become highly competitive, but the market leader is not competing. Such complacency risks the loss of our country’s leadership in international education, with the accompanying negative ramifications for our security, foreign policy and economy” (p. 8).
“Ultimately, what is wrong with this picture is the absence of a strategy to sustain the numbers. For a generation after World War II, the United States had a strategy of promoting international student exchange as a means of waging the Cold War and promoting international peace. But now more than ever, the U.S. government seems to lack overall strategic sense of why exchange is important—and, therefore, of what U.S. interests are at risk by not continuing to foster exchanges” (p. 8).

The NAFSA report identifies four barriers to international student access to U.S. higher education and argues that a strategic plan is needed to address them. The first barrier is the lack of a commitment by the U.S. government to increase international student access and a corresponding strategic plan to make this happen. In the absence of such a commitment and strategy, international recruitment efforts will remain uncoordinated—both among government agencies and institutions of higher education.

The second obstacle identified by the NAFSA task force is “burdensome U.S. government regulations that restrict international student access” (p. 10). Despite the fact that foreign students are already the most carefully screened and monitored category of nonimmigrants to the United States, new immigration policies and restrictions implemented since Sept. 11t are making it ever more difficult for international students to come to the United States.
“Each new layer of regulation increases the resources—time, personnel and money—that schools must spend to comply, robbing them of those resources for proactive efforts to recruit international students and enhance their integration into campus and community” (p. 11).
The most publicized and most cumbersome of these new regulations is the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), the electronic monitoring system implemented since 9/11 to track international students and exchange visitors from the time they apply for a visa in their own country, throughout their stay in the United States, to their return home.
While an electronic system for monitoring international students was originally mandated by the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, that legislation was amended by the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act, which became law in May 2002.
Institutions of higher education wishing to enroll foreign students had to be approved for SEVIS by Jan. 30, 2003. Originally developed by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), SEVIS is now administered by the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement of the new Department of Homeland Security.
SEVIS poses the greatest challenge to institutions, like UB, enrolling large numbers of international students, which have had to develop or purchase software enabling them to upload to SEVIS the required data for many students at one time.
With more than 3,200 international students, UB was obliged to purchase commercial software at great expense to meet SEVIS requirements for “batch processing.” As of early March 2003, the system is still being tested, and until it is ready, UB must submit data for each student individually through the SEVIS Web site.
It remains to be seen what the full impact of SEVIS will be on international enrollments in the United States. However, there is great concern, given the technical complexities involved and the extremely short implementation period, that there will be significant delays caused by SEVIS, both in the issuance of I-20s by institutions and the issuance of visas by U.S. embassies and consulates.
The NAFSA report identifies two other barriers to access: the high cost of U.S. higher education, which is especially difficult for students from other countries to afford, and the inherent complexity of the American system of higher education, which is a reflection of its exceptional depth and variety but which can be daunting and “difficult to decipher” for many foreign students.
The report argues that making a strategic commitment to increased international student access is in the long-term interests of the United States, not least its national security interests. “Continued—indeed, enhanced—U.S. openness to international students is integral to America’s security in today’s world. International student exchanges are part of the solution to terrorism, not part of the problem” (p. 3).

“By hosting international students, we generate an appreciation of American political values and institutions, and we lay the foundation for constructive relations based on mutual understanding and good will,” the report points out. “The millions of people who have studied in the United States over the years constitute a remarkable reservoir of good will for our country, perhaps our most undervalued foreign policy asset” (p. 5).

For many U.S. institutions and for the country as a whole, international students also represent an important financial asset. Although international students comprise only 4 percent of America’s total higher education population, Open Doors 2002 reports they contribute nearly US$12 billion to the U.S. economy in money spent on tuition, living expenses and related costs. Nearly 75 percent of all international student funding comes from personal and family sources or other sources outside the United States.
Overcoming the Barriers
As one of the leading service-sector exports, international education is increasingly vital to the U.S. economy—not to mention the individual institutions enrolling large numbers of foreign students.
“In America’s Interest” outlines the steps that need to be taken on the national level to overcome the barriers to international student access. These include the development by the appropriate federal agencies of a comprehensive recruitment strategy to increase access; the elimination of excessive and unnecessary governmental regulations affecting foreign students; creative solutions to the problem of high costs, including more financial aid for internationals; and the creation of a plan to market U.S. higher education overseas and, in particular, to use the Web to educate foreign students about its many advantages.
With or without the national response called for by NAFSA and others, international recruiters at colleges and universities will need to work harder and smarter in the months and years ahead to increase their enrollments of high-quality foreign students.
Absent the assistance of a comprehensive federal strategy to market American higher education abroad and increased resources for overseas advising centers and other marketing efforts abroad, individual institutions will need to be more aggressive in attracting foreign students through the development of closer ties to foreign secondary schools, colleges and polytechnics, with provision for articulated transfer programs where appropriate; increased financial aid to internationals in the form of merit and admission scholarships; more user-friendly and less costly application procedures; and improved services to foreign students, both pre- and post-enrollment.
As many observers have noted, it is still too early to know the full impact of the post-9/11 changes on international student enrollments in the United States; however, we do know that a combination of factors—from longer visa processing periods and stricter monitoring of internationals to concerns about mandatory registration and perceived safety risks—have created a more challenging environment for international recruiters.
The U.S. system of higher education remains the best in the world—and the most attractive to students overseas. However, unless the barriers to international student access are reduced and government policy is made more friendly to foreign students, it will be difficult for the United States to maintain its preeminent position.
Joseph J. Hindrawan is assistant vice provost for international education and director of international enrollment management at the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York.