Part I: Don't Let the International Student Sun Go Down On You

The 10,000 Foot View

As the seemingly uninterrupted growth of international student flows continues to awaken colleges (and even secondary schools) to the very real benefits - cultural, educational, social, as well as financial - of having global representation on their campuses, you might be forgiven for doing a double take with this post's title. Both the Institute of International Education's 2016 Open Doors Report and the Department of Homeland Security's SEVP Quarterly Report released in December 2016 both show significant growth (7% up from 2014-15 to 2015-16 academic years - Open Doors; and 10% up since November 2015 - SEVP). Depending on which report you view and how international students are defined, there are anywhere between 1,043,000+ (Open Doors) to 1.23 million (SEVP) students from overseas currently in the U.S. Aside from three years post-9/11, there has been only one time (1971-72) since the Open Doors report began in 1948, where the U.S. did not see an annual increase in the number of international students coming to our shores. However, post-U.S. elections in 2016 have changed the landscape considerably. 

Underneath the Surface

But what the casual observer might well miss is the growing concentration of international students at a limited number of institutions. For example, the Open Doors Report press release noted that the top 25 colleges for the number of international students present in the U.S. account for 22% of all post-secondary international students. So, out of well over 4000 accredited colleges and universities, over 200,000 overseas students study at less than 1% of those institutions. SEVP's quarterly report goes a step further highlighting that 75% of SEVP-certified schools have 50 or less international students enrolled. Geographically, fully one-third of international students according to Open Doors data attend institutions in only three states (California, New York, and Texas).

Is There a Tipping Point?

For those schools not blessed by the natural draws for international students (name, rank, and/or geography), the scramble to get a piece of the pie can be driven by many factors, yet the one typically percolating to the top, after the lip service to more qualitative rationales is peeled back, is financial. Case in point, Green River Community College in suburban Seattle, profiled in Insider Higher Ed, has turned to international students in the past decade to counter consistent drops in state funding. Green River's experience is not unique, as public institutions across the nation, as well as many second tier private schools have turned to international students to cure their financial woes. NAFSA: The Association of International Educators produces in collaboration with IIE produces a useful annual report, The Economic Impact of International Students, chronicling the billions of dollars that are brought into the United States by overseas students via their tuition dollars, housing, food, clothing, health insurance, books and supplies and other expenses. The latest report claims $32.8 billion economic contribution by the over one million international students here, that in term support over 400,000 jobs.
In recent years three countries, particularly at the undergraduate level, have driven many institutions to see international student recruitment as cure-all to financial strain: China, Saudi Arabia, and Brazil. Representing 31.5% of all international students in the U.S., China's rapid economic growth, expanding middle class, the one-child policy of the past two generations, and perceived limited career options back home without an overseas degree has led to a very balanced, huge market. Many of those undergraduates are full-fee paying students. Yet rumblings in the Chinese stock market and future lackluster growth projections could spell danger. In Saudi Arabia (Keeper of the Two Holy Mosques scholarship) and Brazil (Scientific Mobility Program - BSMP), government funded initiatives have driven much of the student traffic from those countries. In the last few months, due to a downturn in the Brazilian economy, President Rousseff curtailed the BSMP scholarships before being forced from office last year. Even oil-rich Saudi Arabia is not immune to the vagaries of oil prices. The Kingdom's scholarship program has been dramatically reorganized so that new Saudi students hoping to apply for this scholarship can only apply to universities in the top 200 of the Shanghai list. This development heaps pain on dozens of institutions which had previously enrolled bumper crops of Saudi scholarship students being told their numbers will be significantly cut back if not curtailed entirely to ensure a greater diversity of institutions at which Saudi Arabian students are placed. There is a tipping point to be sure, but it is unlikely to be one single event that will impact the overall continued growth of international students coming to the United States. What is certain, institutions that put too many eggs in one, two, or even three country baskets leave themselves far too open to calamity. 
In part two, the focus will turn to how institutions can prevent an early sunset with proper planning.

Comments

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