How colleges are responding to the drop in Chinese enrollment

U.S. colleges look to Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere for new students
By: | Issue: November/December, 2019
November 8, 2019
Students from about 60 different countries attend the University of Northern Iowa, which has been working to expand its international reach as applications from Chinese college students have dropped nationwide.Students from about 60 different countries attend the University of Northern Iowa, which has been working to expand its international reach as applications from Chinese college students have dropped nationwide.

Where are U.S. college and university admissions officials looking to ramp up recruiting efforts to make up for a significant drop in the enrollment of Chinese college students in America?

India. Nigeria. Ghana. Malaysia. Pakistan. Oman. Norway and Sweden. U.S. community colleges.

And China.

Political tensions have convinced some Chinese international students to stay home or choose to study in other parts of the world. U.S. institutions are also facing increased competition from colleges and universities in Australia, Canada and other areas, including China itself.


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“We had to make a decision: Do we continue to recruit heavily in China, or do we go into other markets?” says Katharine Johnson Suski, executive director of admissions at Iowa State University. “We’ve done both.”

Climate concerns for Chinese college students

Bentley University in the Boston suburbs had a 17% decline in undergraduate applications from Chinese college students last year, says Carolina Figueroa, vice president for enrollment management.

“Luckily, we have always approached international recruitment from a diversity perspective, especially in undergraduate,” Figueroa says. “We continue to travel to multiple territories and continue to look at the economic growth of other areas to figure out which places we can target.”

Bentley has been making inroads in Africa and Latin America. But families in those regions—unlike past international students—expect some tuition assistance, which Bentley has begun to offer.

“The days of the full-pay international? Those days are gone,” Figueroa says. “We’re looking at growing economies, and there’s more of an expectation of scholarships being available. This is the new normal.”

The University of Northern Iowa has recruited in Ghana, Malaysia, Oman, Pakistan and Nigeria as more students in those countries can now afford to attend college in the U.S.

The University of Northern Iowa has recruited in Ghana, Malaysia, Oman, Pakistan and Nigeria as more students in those countries can now afford to attend college in the U.S.

The University of Northern Iowa, which also offers scholarships to international students, has in the past few years sent recruiters to Ghana, Malaysia, Oman, Pakistan and Nigeria.

More students there can now afford to attend college in the U.S., which is a key qualification when applying for a visa, says Kristi Marchesani, associate director of international recruitment and admissions.

While the university has received increasing numbers of applications from emerging markets, the yield has been low. This has led Marchesani’s team to take more trips to countries such as Nigeria and Ghana because recruiting remains a high-touch enterprise that requires face-to-face contact.


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Chinese college students and young people from other countries have concerns about the political climate in the U.S. and about whether they will be able to get the visa they need to fulfill their academic goals.

“Right now, the big message from all U.S. universities is that international students from all around the world are very welcome here,” Marchesani says. “We’ll do everything we can to fight for their rights and opportunities while they’re here studying.”

Recommitting to China—and looking beyond

Portland State University in Oregon has also been staying closer to home to find international students to make up for the decrease in Chinese students in America, says Samuel E.C. Dunlop, the director of international recruitment and outreach.

“A quarter of all international community college students are in California,” Dunlop says. “We’re recruiting in the U.S. for students from other countries who are already here and looking to finish a bachelor’s degree.”

Though enrollment of Chinese college students has been in decline, some colleges and universities are recommitting to the country by traveling outside big cities to recruit.

Though enrollment of Chinese college students has been in decline, some colleges and universities are recommitting to the country by traveling outside big cities to recruit.

Recruiters at Portland State have stepped up recruiting in Norway and Sweden, too. Students can pay for tuition in the U.S. with funds, grants and scholarships that would have
covered their free education at home, Dunlop says.

Iowa State, which has boosted recruiting in several countries, is recommitting to Chinese international students,, says Suski.


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The university, which has seen significant drops in the enrollment of Chinese college students, now has a Mandarin-speaking staff member who travels extensively in China. Iowa State is also sending delegations of administrators and faculty there to convince Chinese college students students who have been accepted to enroll.

Additional partnerships with Chinese universities allow students to transfer to Iowa State. The university is also boosting recruitment efforts outside the big cities, Suski says. “We get different questions than we’ve gotten in the past,” Suski says. “Student feel like they have more options, and there are certainly concerns about visas, gun safety, and safety in general.”

Matt Zalaznick is senior writer.