The floodgates are opening for international students as pandemic-era travel restrictions are left in the dust, and data suggests that learners abroad are readily taking an interest in the U.S. once again.
However, the international recruitment landscape is changing: Competition from countries like the U.K., Australia, and Canada is increasing, concerns over U.S. safety are heightening and online modalities are making it easier than ever for students to connect with universities overseas.
Nevertheless, U.S.-based institutions and related organizations are taking steps to ensure they remain the No. 1 location for students abroad.
“International education is fascinating because if you see declining enrollments from Americans, a lot of universities are hedging their bets on international students,” says Dave Saben, CEO of Via, a travel risk management software empowering international higher education. “Institutions are not just using this revenue to make the world better, they’re using it to help our own citizen group.”
Opening recruitment to more universities
Colleges and universities are expanding the presence of their boots-on-the-ground recruiters overseas. Kristi Marchesani, director of international recruitment and admissions at the University of Northern Iowa, credits this approach to helping her school increase international enrollment by 20.7%, Iowa Capital Dispatch reports. While not as meteoric, the University of Iowa and Iowa State University saw breakthrough bumps in their enrollment as well, thanks in part to this strategy, according to the Iowa Board of Regents Fall 2023 enrollment report.
However, not all institutions have the luxury of employing full-time employees overseas, and not every institution has a $1 billion endowment like UI and ISU do. Still, institutions that are not as well off financially have a chance to expand their international footprint through a series of new partnerships that have been announced.
EAB, a prominent higher education research and enrollment solutions agency, hopes to streamline its 1,000+ college and university members’ access to the international student marketplace. Its partnership with a career guidance platform for K12 schools connects higher education with 100,000 international students in over 140 countries. Not only will it facilitate smaller institutions with connections overseas, but it also plans to implement data-informed recruitment strategies that have already gained traction domestically, says Chris Marett, president of marketing and enrollment solutions at EAB.
Additionally, colleges and universities are taking an interest in StudyGroup as a potential partner. California State University San Marcos, Towson University in Maryland, and University of Nebraska at Omaha—two of three of which have endowments below $100 million—recently partnered with the service.
Identifying new prospects
A changing relationship with China is threatening to puncture a hole in one of America’s largest swell of students abroad. Guidance by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is urging state universities to pause recruiting graduate students from this “country of concern,” alarming faculty. A bill introduced in Texas would also extend this practice to undergraduate students, disallowing all Chinese students from stepping foot on its campuses.
“The United States is on the brink of a major shift with regard to its enrollment of Chinese students,” said Xiaofeng Wan, associate dean of admission and coordinator of international recruitment at Amherst College, in an email. “Which direction it goes in will largely depend on how seriously this issue is taken by the US government and US higher education institutions.”
To compensate for the reduced number of Chinese learners, U.S. schools should pay attention to Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East, whose students are increasingly interested in pursuing international education. Russell Ganim, associate provost and dean of international programs at the University of Iowa, credits its diversification of recruitment efforts to these regions to its higher enrollment numbers, according to the Iowa Capital Dispatch.
Ghanaian students applying via the Common App surged by 122% in the 2023-2024 academic year, the highest growth rate among all countries. According to enrollment data in the 2022-23 academic collected by Open Doors, their cohort grew 32%, second only to India. Total student enrollment from India has already eclipsed China. Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Nepal also represent promising student cohorts, according to Open Door and Common App growth rate data.
Laxing visa processing for STEM-educated students
U.S. capabilities in STEM education and its related workforce incentives are a hook for international students and will help steer them toward picking our institutions, said Shim Shimaz, director of international admission and services at Whittier College, in an email.
“Leveraging this demand, U.S. institutions could benefit from increasing programs in STEM to capture an even bigger slice of the prospect market,” he said. “STEM-designated programs allow international students to remain in the U.S. for three years post-graduation, paving a path for practical training and employment in their field of study.”
However, stringent U.S. visa processing requirements implemented post-9/11 have slowed the trough of students enrolling. Measures in Canada and South Korea have taken advantage of this and have streamlined their processing times and fast-track permanent residency applications.
In response, the American Council on Education (ACE) and The American International Recruitment Council have been lobbying the Secretary of State and Homeland Security to create efficiencies. For example, ACE requested that Secretary of State Antony Blinken waive the in-person interview requirement for certain nonimmigrant visa applicants permanently in a letter in December. The exemption, put in place during the pandemic and set to expire soon, has allowed F-1 and J-1 visas to study and complete research in the United States at a higher rate and contributed over $40.1 billion to the U.S. economy in the 2022-23 academic year.
“We ask that this flexibility be extended permanently to continue to attract and welcome international students and scholars to our institutions while maintaining national security,” wrote ACE President Ted Mitchell.
International students may be further incentivized to seek education in the United States if the DHS extends the H-1B temporary visa to six years. Currently, at three years, as Shimaz mentioned, this visa will allow colleges and universities to educate and employ international students for double the current time allotted.
Note: This article was updated on Jan. 24 to reflect insight from Xiaofeng Wan, associate dean of admission and coordinator of international recruitment at Amherst College, and Shim Shimaz, director of international admission and services at Whittier College.