Behind the Open Doors: International Enrollment Growth at the Expense of Diversity?
By Nick Clark, Editor, World Education News & Reviews
The Institute of International Education (IIE) released its annual accounting of academic mobility into and out of the United States in early November with its 2012 Open Doors Report. The report found that the number of international students in U.S. higher education increased by 5.7 percent versus the year prior to a record high of 764,495.
A similar, but stronger, increase in the number of “new” international enrollments indicates that the now six-year growth trend is set to continue, especially when read in conjunction with a new report from the Council of Graduate Schools, which is reporting an 8 percent current-year increase in new international graduate students.
And, as Beth McMurtrie from The Chronicle of Higher Education put it, “the story, once again, is China.”
The China and Saudi Arabia Story
Well, almost. The story (once again) is China and Saudi Arabia. Combined enrollments from the two countries accounted for an increase of 47,906 international students between 2010/11 and 2011/12, trumping the total enrollment increase of 41,218 students across all sending countries. Controlling for China and Saudi Arabia, therefore, U.S. higher education actually witnessed a 6,688 year-on-year decrease in its stock of international students.
The IIE data is suggestive of an overreliance on a couple of key markets, a theme that is increasingly of concern to institutions seeking greater international diversity on their campuses. Indeed, if one were to take a slightly longer-term look at the data, it is evident that nearly all growth in recent years has come from China and Saudi Arabia. Since 2006, enrollments from China have grown by 210 percent while enrollments from Saudi Arabia have grown an incredible 890 percent. Again, if one controls for these two countries over the six-year period between 2006 and 2012, international student numbers in U.S. higher education have declined by 3,627.
Today, Chinese students make up over one third (37 percent) of all international graduate students in the United States and over one quarter (25.4 percent) of international enrollments at all levels of the tertiary system. Meanwhile, enrollments from other countries that have traditionally been strong markets for U.S. institutions of higher education have either declined or seen marginal growth. From South Korea, for example, enrollments have plateaued between 72,000 and 73,000 for a number of years, while from an ageing Japan enrollments have declined 41 percent in the last five years.
Perhaps more significantly, India is now sending fewer students to the United States than it did in 2008/09 when it was the leading source of international students. In the three years to 2011/12, the total number of Chinese students at U.S. institutions of higher education has increased to almost double that of India, from where the student stock has fallen by 4,627 students since 2008/09.
The India Story
Overall, the number of Indians in U.S. higher education declined by 3.5 percent to a touch over 100,000 students in academic year 2011/12. However, the number of students actively engaged in a program of study dropped by a more significant margin due to an increase of 8.4 percent (to 26,742) in the number of Indians undertaking a year of Optional Practical Training (OPT). Those employed on a year of OPT are doing so on a student visa, and thus counted in the total Indian stock, but they are not actually engaged in a program of study.
If you remove the OPT numbers from the total, then you find that the number of Indians studying at a U.S. institution of higher education dropped by 7.75 percent to a total of 73,528, a significantly higher decline than the overall loss of 3.5 percent.
And the declining trend in Indian enrollments looks set to continue. The IIE’s Fall Online Survey Report for the current academic year shows that 27.3 percent of responding institutions saw a decline in new Indian enrollments versus the 25.3 percent of institutions that saw an increase (the remainder reported that they saw no significant change in the number of new Indian enrollments).
The news is much the same from the Council of Graduate Schools, which reported in its International Graduate Enrollment Survey that between 2011 and 2012: “first-time graduate enrollment of students from India increased 1 percent, an increase from previous years in which this number dropped by as much as 16 percent (between 2008 and 2009).” In the meantime, new Chinese enrollments at the graduate level showed their seventh successive year of double-digit growth at 22 percent.
The statistical evidence, therefore, suggests that Indian enrollments in the United States will continue to decline moderately in the near term, while a ceiling on Chinese growth is not yet apparent.
Other International Enrollment Trends
The “Fall 2012 Snapshot Survey,” released by IIE at the same time as its main Open Doors report is a separate analysis offering current-year international student enrollment trends based on survey responses from U.S. universities and colleges. Among the 569 responding institutions were 120 of the 199 US campuses that enroll more than 1,000 international students, and all of the top 20 enrolling institutions.
In total, 56 percent of responding institutions reported a year-on-year increase in international enrollments in 2012, with 21 percent reporting a decline and 23 percent reporting no change. Among the top 20 enrolling institutions, 18 reported increases in international enrollments this year with none reporting a decline.
Of the institutions registering an increased international enrollment in 2012, the major reasons – based on feedback from international applicants – are:
- Continued active recruitment efforts (cited by 68 percent of responding institutions)
- The growing visibility of U.S. campuses abroad (53 percent)
- An increased number of linkages with foreign institutions of education (30 percent)
- Campuses reporting increases also noted changes in course offerings, an increase in the number of sponsored students, and better communications with students, parents and schools in key countries.
Meanwhile, 69 percent of all responding institutions say they have taken special steps to ensure that the number of international students on their campuses does not decline. These special steps include:
- Adding new staff or devoting additional staff time to international recruitment (cited by 61 percent)
- New international programs or collaborations (52 percent)
- New funding for international recruitment trips (41 percent)
- Engaging third-party recruiters/agents (31 percent).
Institutions devoting more resources to international recruitment trips say they have concentrated mainly on Asia, with China by far the most popular recruitment destination. Institutions also reported increased recruitment in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and in countries such as Vietnam, Brazil, Korea, India, Indonesia, and Canada.
China, Brazil & the Arab Spring
In a special line of questioning related to the dramatic surge in applications and enrollments from China, the IIE survey asked institutions with more than 30 percent of international students enrolled from China what impact the concentration of students has had on their campuses.
A majority reported challenges related to integrating the growing number of Chinese students on their campuses and in their communities, and to English proficiency levels. In response, a number of campuses indicated that they are adding more ESL classes, increasing their level of student support services, and adding special tutoring services to help Chinese students with academic, social and cultural issues.
In a similar line of questioning related to an incoming wave of Brazilian scholarship students, institutions who reported closer engagement with Brazil this year said they had begun new recruitment activities in Brazil (28 percent), hosted more students from Brazil (24 percent), engaged in partnership activities with Brazilian institutions (22 percent), and conducted planning trips to Brazil (20 percent).
For those institutions that had students enrolled from countries impacted by civil unrest related to the ‘Arab Spring,’ IIE asked what, if any, special provisions they had made to support those affected. Many institutions indicated that they had provided direct financial assistance, such as scholarships, tuition waivers or discounts, made short-term loans or provided assistantships. In lieu of direct financial assistance, institutions also offered flexibility with billing and registration deadlines, free or reduced-rate housing and meal tickets, expanded personal and group counseling services, or assisted students with applying for economic hardship work authorization through the US Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The U.S. higher education sector continues to see robust growth in international enrollments. With a stock of 764,000 international students and a 6.5 percent increase in the flow of new international students, growth rates look promising moving forward, especially when one considers that international students still account for less than 4 percent of the 20.6 million student total in U.S. tertiary education.
However, a closer look at the data suggests an overreliance on a few select markets. In 2011/12, China, India, South Korea and Saudi Arabia accounted for 52.4 percent (400,733) of all international students, while in 2000 the top 10 sending countries accounted for 54.5 percent of international students. Today, by comparison, the top 10 sending countries account for over two-thirds (67 percent) of all international enrollments.
The takeaway here is that, yes, international enrollments are growing, but the diversity of the student body seems to be narrowing. As indicated by the IIE’s line of questioning in its current-year online survey to institutions with an international enrollment of more than 30 percent Chinese students, there is clearly a concern that the Chinese concentration is having an impact (negative by implication) on the classroom-learning environment, academic standards, and on broader internationalization efforts. There are also market-based concerns, based on recent lessons from other major education exporters, that a lack of diversification can lead to serious challenges for the broader education-export industry.
In Australia, for example, international enrollments have been plummeting in recent years due to the hemorrhaging of the all-important and once dominant Indian market. This was brought on by a number of factors, but catalyzed by the murder of two Indian students in late 2009 and early 2010 and a subsequent media frenzy in India describing Australia as a dangerous place to study. The attacks, combined with a stringent tightening of visa standards in the popular vocational and professional training sector led to a precipitous decline in Indian enrollments.
New Zealand experienced its own fall from grace in 2003 when a number of high-profile private school closures led to a 61 percent decrease in Chinese enrollments between 2003 and 2008, and an overall international enrollment decline of 27 percent from 121,200 students in 2003 to 88,600 in 2008. From an income standpoint, it is estimated that the overall decrease in student numbers led to a 19 percent reduction in total tuition fees over the six-year period to 2008.
As a recent study from the Research and Advisory Services arm of WES points out: “Institutions [in the U.S] are beginning to realize the need to de-risk their dependence on only a few large markets.” The report, Beyond More of the Same: The Top Four Emerging Markets for International Students, highlights the University of Iowa as just one example of an institution that has a heavy overreliance on a single market with over 70 percent of all international enrollments coming from China.
The report suggests a re-prioritizing of recruitment efforts away from the major markets to four smaller emerging markets that have potential for growth. The statistical evidence suggests that unless institutions rethink their recruitment strategies, future international enrollment growth will be heavily reliant on a handful of countries, most notably China, and more specifically Chinese undergraduate students across a small clustering of disciplines.
Those institutions that find a way to diversify their international recruiting practices to a broader spectrum of countries, and away from the easier but heavily saturated China market, are the ones likely to enjoy longer-term successes – both qualitatively and quantitatively – in their campus internationalization efforts.