US International Higher Education

Lessons Learned: How U.S. universities respond when international students’ worlds turn upside down

Part 2: 9/11 and International Admissions

Following the 9/11 attacks, U.S. colleges either retreated or expanded their work in pursuit of recruiting the best and brightest to our shores. While some looked to other markets to make up for expected losses from the Arab world, others saw opportunities to show their institutions still welcomed Muslim students on their campuses.

How, then, to recruit in the Middle East?

Many recruitment tour providers, CIS, Linden, USEG canceled trips to the region for the indefinite future. At the time, no one knew how long it would be for organized tours to return to the Middle East. In 2003, shortly after returning from a college counseling stint at an international school in the UK (where I was during 9/11), I joined the Council of International Schools Committee for Europe, Middle East and Africa. With the responsibility for planning tours to those regions, we decided to shut down tours to the Middle East until the spring of 2007. In April 2008 we were the first U.S. university tour to travel to the West Bank for an incredibly well-received college fair.

At that same time, a new phenomenon took international educators around the country by storm: state consortia. Between 2002-2007 nine consortia had formed nationwide, by 2013, 34 different states had an organized group in one form or another. Our state consortium, Destination Indiana, founded in 2002, had been actively pursuing stronger relationships with EducationUSA advisers around the world. We invited these advisers to our campuses to learn about our institutions and our programs. Over the course of 2003-2008, Indiana institutions hosted over 150 advisers who got to know our colleges. During that same span of time, Indiana rose from the 13th to 10th most popular destination with international students.

As part of our collective efforts, we also explored digital video conferencing with advising centers. In February 2006, we hosted the first Live Video College Fair (LVCF) that connected six Destination Indiana member institutions with six EducationUSA advising centers across the Middle East from Rabat to Muscat over a five-hour period. In total we connected with over 300 students across those six countries. Our Indiana colleagues connected again with these centers a year later and did other LVCF events with other EducationUSA centers over the next three years.

Additionally, in May 2007, as part of our pre-NAFSA Conference activities, we arranged a Muslim Student Issues Conference that brought 20+ EducationUSA advisers (see image below) who advised Muslim students in the Middle East and beyond. During the conference we covered topics as broad as coping with fears of harassment, guiding students toward realizable goals, preparing students for a different culture, and visa fears and concerns among others. 


Dealing with visa issues?

Getting an F-1 visa as a Muslim student in the early 2000s was a struggle. The extra Mantis and traditional security clearances (Security Advisory Opinions or SAO) required post-9/11 were well- intentioned, but the implementation took months to process student and scholar visas with up to 13 different governmental agencies reviewing applicants.

Following 9/11, the University of Bridgeport’s entire international student recruitment plan was placed under review, with no visas being issued for a time. Bryan Gross, now the VP of Enrollment at Western New England University, remarked that “while this period of time was stressful for a number of reasons because so much was unknown, including whether we would be able to meet our immediate, short-term revenue goals, it did cause us to have to carefully evaluate what our international recruitment strategy would be when visas were issued again.” On the issue of answering visa questions from parents and students, Gross recalled “we worked very carefully together (with two Middle Eastern agent partners) to help some students through the visa interview process and received regular feedback on students who were both approved and denied visas.”

The rise of secondary inspections for incoming students, and the Special Registration Act that required males between the ages of 16-25 from a list of 25 countries (24 of which are Muslim majority nations) in 2002 and 2003, put a significant hindrance to student flows from those nations. However, by the late 2000’s, processing times were down, and student visas were given priority by U.S. embassies and consulates around the world. The wave of students from a particular country in the region were beginning to boom.

When did things start improving?

According to the IIE Open Doors data, the total enrollments of international students did not dip for the first time until the 2003-04 academic year, and did not show positive growth again until 2006-07. IIE did not begin tracking new international student enrollments as part of their reporting until 2004-05.

Image courtesy of IIE Open Doors Fast Facts for 2006-07

What contributed to the rebound in 2006-07, began with new international student growth in 2005-06, up 8.3%, and up 10% the following year. Where were those increases coming? India, at #1, grew by over 7,000 students, China, #2 at the beginning of their undergraduate boom was up more than 5,000. Perhaps the most surprising country to experience rapid growth at that time was Saudi Arabia, which grew 4,400 in one year. In 2005 the Kingdom announced the expansion of their government scholarship programs in part to “overcome various challenges facing students.” This development also sparked other Gulf countries to grow the number of scholarships they provided for their students to study in the United States. Kuwait, after Saudi Arabia, represented the next largest country (in terms of students sent) from the region to invest in U.S. higher education.

What the numbers also show from 2006-07 is that other countries were beginning to see an upward tick that would continue for some countries even until today (i.e. Nepal, Brazil, and Vietnam).

Lessons Learned

From the immediate post-9/11 shock when many international educators were implementing enforced new political policies and requirements, to taking proactive steps to build new alliances and forge new paths, the international student enrollment management profession in the United States had been transformed forever. By necessity our approach to recruitment, advising, and services for students across the board had to change.

From my experience and connections with colleagues from that era, aside from a need to play the long game and appeal for patience with administrators, four international education lessons were learned from the attacks of September 11th:

  • Adapt to challenging circumstances through diversifying markets
    • Don’t give up on the Middle East for students.
    • Invest in other growth markets (Nepal, Vietnam, China, India, Brazil)
  • Adjust messaging to prospective international students
    • Let current students and parents tell your stories
    • If you cannot travel, go digital – Destination Indiana Live Video College Fairs with EducationUSA
    • Jump in with the dawn of social media
  • Build new partnerships to show commitment to international student recruitment
    • Connect early with the expansion of Saudi Government Scholarships, along with Kuwait and other Gulf countries
    • Develop your in-state allies – e.g. state consortia, like Destination Indiana, Study Illinois, Study Hawaii, etc. beginning in 2002. By 2013, 34 states had a consortium in one form or another-
    • Develop regional education hubs for US institutions – Education City in Doha, Qatar, and in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, UAE – brought US-style education to students in the region
  • Invest in meeting needs of the wide range of international students on our campuses
    • Address student safety – In May 2007, at the Destination Indiana/EducationUSA Muslim Student Issues Conference with 20 advisers from around the world – IUPUI’s Public Safety launched a video designed specifically with campus police and Saudi/Muslim students in mind
    • Ensure campus facilities (or nearby access) for worship/prayer
    • Have adequate food services during Ramadan

In next month’s article we’ll explore how institutions are responding to the impact of the 2016 elections on international student motivations and how past lessons might be applied to current challenges.

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