US International Higher Education

Lessons Learned: International Admissions Responds to 2016 Elections

Part 3: International Admissions Responds to 2016 Elections

Fifteen years after 9/11, the U.S. experienced a shock of a very different kind. The election campaign and subsequent result pushed negative political discourse to a new low in our country. Unfortunately, the rhetoric’s deleterious impact on overseas audiences’ perceptions of the United States as a primary study destination could not be denied.

Surveys in late 2016 and 2017 reflected how prospective international students began to view the U.S. less favorably, and as a less welcoming country. The global media coverage of the various travel bans first proposed a week after the inauguration did nothing to change those impressions. So, what have international admissions offices done to turn their institution’s fortunes around in a positive way? Do any of the core lessons learned post 9/11 have relevance today? This month we’ll examine how colleges adapted to their new realities using the first two of those four lessons as a guide.

1.   Adapt to challenging circumstances through diversifying markets.

2.   Adjust messaging and methods of communicating with prospective international students.

3.   Build new partnerships to show commitment to international student recruitment.

4.   Invest in meeting needs of the wide range of international students on our campuses.

Diversifying Markets

While the Middle East and the Muslim world have largely been seen as the most directly impacted by post-election news coverage, some of the decreases in interest, applications, and enrollment actually were well underway before November 2016. In February of that year, the government of Saudi Arabia, by far the largest sending country from the region (from the 2015-16 Open Doors report with 61,287), announced a massive restructuring and scaling back of their seemingly never-ending scholarship program that had populated many U.S. colleges for the better part of the last decade. Within two years, Saudi Arabian students dropped to 43,413 in the August 2018 (real-time) SEVIS by the Numbers report.

In other parts of the world, U.S. consulates and embassies abroad had also issued far fewer visas (40% less) since a peak in 2015. In the most recent year, the greatest reduction in student visas issued in the fiscal year end September 30, 2017 was from India, 28% down. These two significant declines, particularly from such large senders (#2 and #3 in the 2016 Open Doors Report), meant for many institutions they needed to diversify.

At the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), two new markets have emerged in the last three years to now serve as their top two sending countries: Pakistan and the United States. You read that right. For UIC’s admissions office, they now recruit more international students to campus from within our country than from any other nation. And #2 on UIC’s list is Pakistan, up from 5th four years ago. Richard O’Rourke, Associate Director in the Office of Admissions, shares “we are at an 85% admit rate for Pakistan (above the average 70%).  Of those, 32% confirm and 63% of those confirmations enroll – both figures are way above the average for our international students.”

Like UIC, Ryan Griffin at the University of Missouri at Columbia (Mizzou) reported that 33% of their admitted international undergraduates in fall 2018 came from domestic sources. Griffin attributes this phenomenon to “two or three years ago, parents of international students made the decision to give their sons and daughters a U.S. education, so they started sending them to private, mostly boarding schools.”

Smaller private institutions without the name brand of large state universities or more selective colleges face an uphill battle from the outset in challenging times. While there are numerous smaller privates recently that have suffered by becoming overly reliant on one or two key countries, institutions that commit to a broad based diversification strategy give themselves a fighting chance at survival. Maryville University in suburban St. Louis, has taken such an approach under the international leadership of Melissa Mace. Since joining Maryville in 2015, Mace has focused recruitment on traditionally secondary markets, and particularly since the 2016 election, with positive results in Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and several African nations.

Adjusting Methods and Messages

When it comes to new messaging, none figured more prominently post-election than the #YouAreWelcomeHere movement. Within days after the November results were clear, the wheels had been set in motion to counter the rhetoric of the political campaign that sounded to those outside the country (and even to many inside the United States) very unwelcoming to those from abroad. The responses were heart-warming and began to move the needle.

Over 350 colleges and universities joined the cause determined, as the #YAWH website explains, “to affirm that our institutions are diverse, friendly, safe and committed to student development.” Whether through videos of different campus groups and offices expressing their welcoming attitudes, to student testimonials, to various email campaigns sharing success stories, these institutions changed tactics and their messages to address the negative perceptions that had built up.

Back at UIC, O’Rourke emphasizes their use of all Hotcourses language microsites, as a primary method toward casting a wide yet focused net for international students. Additionally, their admissions criteria needed some work, “we’ve adapted our process to recognize English proficiency in other ways (like IB and O levels).”

Griffin comments that changes to the Mizzou admissions policies for how Indian secondary school students were admitted contributed to a rise in admits and enrolled undergraduate students from the second largest country in the world. Other colleges have eliminated application fees, streamlined their admissions process, become test-optional, and introduced new scholarships (or reduced tuition rates) for international students to help present a more welcoming impression of U.S. higher education.

Next month we’ll cover how U.S. institutions have applied lessons #3 (Building Partnerships) and #4 (Investing in Current Students) to meet the challenges international educators have faced in the last three years.

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