For colleges and universities, foreign students add to their students’ global experience, but they are also a major money generator. Many pay cash and all are charged the higher out-of-state tuition fees. The number of foreigners applying to U.S. colleges was on the rise, but since the Trump Administration issued a travel ban on some Muslim countries and tightened up the visa process, many schools have seen a drop in applications, including some in the Charlotte area.
Officials at the International Student and Scholar Office at UNC Charlotte have been busy lately answering questions from foreign students about the fall semester.
Meher Meka stopped by for advisement on his upcoming courses. He is a graduate, electrical engineering student from India, where the majority of foreign students at UNC Charlotte are from. India has a significant Muslim population but it was not on the travel ban list. Still, Meka says some friends back home are confused.
“It is not clear to them. Most have applied anyway but I have seen a few cases where they are holding off for some time,” Meka said.
Foreign students who are from the six countries on the travel ban list can still come to the U.S. if they are accepted at a school here, but Meka says some don’t believe that and are hesitant to apply. That reluctance is being felt nationwide. According to an Institute of International Education survey of 250 colleges, about 40 percent saw a decline in foreign student applications for the fall, some by as much as 30 percent.
Allan Goodman, president of the Institute, says prospective international students typically ask about test scores, whether they were eligible for federal financial aid—the answer is no—and even the weather. But now Goodman says, “They’re asking questions about safety and security. They see the headlines about gun violence in America and wonder if every American has a gun and if guns are carried quite openly. They’ve beginning to ask if the school I’m planning to go to is in a red state or a blue state.”
At UNC Charlotte, international applications dropped by 17 percent for the fall and that’s turned into a 21 percent enrollment decline. UNC Charlotte, which has nearly 29,000 students, has the third highest number of international students in the state, 2,700. Officials say their tuition and fees accounted for nearly 6 percent, about $38 million, of this year’s budget.
UNC Charlotte doesn’t get many students from countries on the travel ban list, except for about 100 students from Iran. International Student and Scholar Office director Tarek Elshayeb says prospective Iranian students are flooding them with questions such as, “Will they be able to come, will they be able to complete their degree, can my family visit me while I’m studying and attend my graduation, will I be able to get a degree and work after graduation.”
Even so, Elshayeb says there has not been a drop in applications from Iran, with 125 submitted for the fall. Most of the school’s international students are enrolled in STEM, graduate level programs.
“This time last year we had 4800 applications for the fall and this morning we had 4100, so we’re down 700 applications,” says Johnna Watson is an associate dean for the graduate school. “International students comprise over half of our applicant pool each fall semester, so it’s very significant at Charlotte.”
Watson says the decline is happening at a time when they were seeing increases in international student applicants by as much as 25 percent in some programs. Now, she says some students are asking if they can delay their admissions to see how the immigration issue plays out.
“Considering they’re 27 percent of graduate enrollment and it’s expensive to educate in the programs they enroll in STEM, the equipment that has to be outfitted is more expensive and if the enrollment decreases over the next several years, we will definitely feel that and have to make up for that in some other ways,” Watson says.
NC State has the largest foreign student population in the state, over 5,000. Officials there say applications are down only slightly. Number two ranked Duke has seen foreign applications drop by about 900 submissions. Davidson College hasn’t seen a change. Officials there suspect that’s because their application deadline was before Trump was inaugurated.
Johnson C. Smith averages about 50 international students, mainly from Caribbean countries and South Africa, says enrollment dean Katherine Hurd. This fall, only about 20 are enrolled.
“I think a lot of it has to do with the uneasiness about coming to the U.S. and being able to go through the process and get in and be comfortable, safe and secure in the U.S. to study,” Hurd says.
On the graduate level, a survey conducted by the Council of Graduate Schools in May reveals that 46 percent of the schools they heard from are experiencing significant enrollment declines of international students.
UNC Charlotte’s Dean Watson says on the grad side, “We’re only down about 23 students total in international enrollment for the fall, even though applications are down and so offers of admission are down but our commitments of students who plan to enroll are on par of last year, so that’s a positive of mitigating any economic downturn for UNC Charlotte. “
Watson says they are looking at expanding their recruiting efforts to countries such as Brazil and Bosnia, in case the declines turn into a trend. Institute of International Education President Goodman says schools will have to work harder to get overseas students.
“Which means urging them to take extra time to fill out Visa forms and be very proactive to make sure the students we want and who have accepted our offers of admission get the opportunity to come here and that visa regulations don’t prove an obstacle they can’t overcome with help,” Goodman said.
Goodman says school officials will have to make students overseas feel welcome because other countries with good higher education systems, such as Great Britain Canada and Australia, are rolling out campaigns letting them know they are wanted.