Is the U.S. Losing the Global Battle for New Talent?

09/26/2017 08:40 am ET

The Boston Globe recently reported on the decision by record numbers of international students to choose Canada when pursuing their higher education goals. Reporter Laura Krantz noted:

“Some reasons are longstanding – fear of gun crime in the United States and cheaper tuition up north. But the 2016 election, and with it Trump’s travel ban and what many see as the demonization of foreigners and immigrants and a new wave of racism, have created a post-Trump surge at Canadian colleges.”

At the University of Toronto, the number of foreign students who accepted admissions offers increased by 21 percent. In fairness, Canada has increased its international recruiting goals to spur economic growth. It has 353,000 international students today but plans to increase the number to 450,000 by 2022.

Overall, the number of international students has increased 92 percent in Canada since 2008. Ms. Krantz relates: “By comparison, the United States has about one million foreign students and a population ten times the size of Canada.”

International Student Enrollment Declines at U.S. Colleges, Universities

Elizabeth Redden reported similar findings in Inside Higher Education earlier this month after interviewing about two dozen university officials. She found:

“…no consistent, unifying trends emerge, but some are reporting a slowdown in the flow of students from China and declines in graduate students from India, two countries that together account for nearly half of all international students in the U.S. Universities also continue to feel the effects of the declines in enrollments of Saudi Arabian students that began in 2016, after the Saudi government tightened up some of the terms of its massive scholarship program.”

Is the U.S. Abdicating Its Competitive Edge with International Students?

This raises the important question about how American colleges and universities present their value proposition to international students. Ms. Redden notes that Dane Rowley, international admissions director at California Lutheran University, suggests:

“In some ways it’s really good; the accessibility of international education is expanding for students, so they don’t have to come to the U.S. as the be-all, end-all of international education. It just happens that it’s coming at a time when the U.S. is almost abdicating its international edge with international students.”

Ms. Redden further reports that Rahul Choudaha, executive vice president for global engagement, research and intelligence for StudyPortals, an online international student marketing and recruitment platform, surmises that large research universities “…seem to be less hurting than the other categories, because they have a much longer history of enrolling international students, but also they have a better brand than the other institutions that joined the international student wave in the last decade or so.” By contrast, he said,

“Institutions which are not perceived to be high ranked or are not located close to major cities or [that have not] experienced challenges with student experiences or [are] over-reliant on few markets (e.g., Saudi or China or India) will be the first to get hurt. Many institutions that were late entrants in building their capacity for international enrollment will be the first to lose in this wave of declining international enrollment for fall 2017. The multiplier effect of financial implications of lower fall 2017 enrollment over next two to four years [is] significant for institutions already hurting.”

Mr. Choudaha argues: “The years of fairly easy growth may be over -- at least for many universities, and at least for now. Universities may have to work harder to keep their international enrollments steady, or at least to prevent precipitous drops.”

Fewer International Students Hurts Colleges’ Revenue Stream

These changes have important policy implications for American higher education. At smaller colleges that are less well known, the implications to their financial bottom line can be enormous.

The decline in international students destabilizes the tuition base and may dramatically affect net tuition revenue on which almost all of these institutions depend heavily.

It looks like American colleges and universities will suffer the most in the battle between the economics that helps them be sustainable long term and the politics administered by the U.S. State Department.

U.S. Immigration Policy Hinders International Students’ Ability to Work After Graduation

The problem is complicated because international students face additional concerns over their ability to obtain U.S. work visas after graduation, further depressing the number of international students in American universities. This is not a problem in Canada, for example, especially since the Canadian government had instituted policies making it easier for international students graduating from Canadian universities to obtain work in Canada after graduation.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect is the sense that American higher education is suffering a public relations debacle, whether because of the Trump Administration’s political agenda or a sense by the students that America is no longer a safe or welcoming place for them.

This will have long-term implications for the American workforce, especially since the workforce benefits enormously from the talent available after the graduation of non-U.S.-born graduates.

If the nationalism that polarizes much of America continues, the impact will damage U.S. international standing further and weaken the growth of the American economy.

Has anyone really thought this through carefully?

This article was first published on the blog of the Edvance Foundation.

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