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Budgets Suffer After A Drop In International Student Enrollment


After a decade of large-scale growth in overseas enrollment, the number of international students studying at American colleges and universities is dropping. That's leading some schools to make painful budget cuts. And Midwestern universities are among the hardest hit. Stan Jastrzebski of member station WBAA reports that some schools are trying some new strategies to stem these losses.

STAN JASTRZEBSKI, BYLINE: About a year ago, Marie Hertzler, who heads Wright State University's modern languages department, knew some of her colleagues would be losing their jobs. The school in southwestern Ohio was dealing with a budget crisis. So it scrapped the Russian, Japanese and Italian language programs. Part of Wright State's money woes stem from declining international student enrollment. It's these students who frequently pay full tuition and fees at American schools, netting more revenue per student than from in-state or scholarship students. So when Wright State's overseas enrollment plunged by about a third from 2015 to 2017, Hertzler says some colleagues started to worry.

MARIE HERTZLER: I have had faculty contact me and say, you know, I just want to make sure I understand. Am I at risk? And so I reassure them that I have heard nothing about them being at risk or their program.

JASTRZEBSKI: Admissions officials say one of the reasons for the decline is a more skeptical view of the U.S. from prospective students.

SUSAN HILLMANN DE CASTANEDA: I do remember one student saying to me as he was walking past my table with the table cloth on it - he goes, oh, you're in the United States, huh? I said, yes. He goes, nope. I can't go there. I'm going to go to Canada or the United Kingdom.

JOHN WILKERSON: For the first time in 14 years in this field, last fall, I was asked by a student in Rome if Indiana was a red state or blue state.

JASTRZEBSKI: That's Susan Hillmann de Castaneda, who works in admissions at Earlham College, and Indiana University director of international admissions John Wilkerson. Wilkerson says his school tries hard to reassure international students that they'll be welcome on campus, sending students and faculty on more trips overseas to meet with potential recruits one on one. Melanie Gottlieb is with the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admission Officers. She says all the America First rhetoric coming out of Washington is hindering recruiting efforts.

MELANIE GOTTLIEB: It's a larger PR effort that's required on the part of an institution to answer those questions and allay those fears.

JASTRZEBSKI: Schools are also now paying more to support their international clientele. Purdue University, which has doubled its enrollment from overseas in the last decade, faces criticism from faculty that the school admits too many students who aren't proficient in English. To help deal with that, Purdue established an English language learning center on campus and now requires international students to come to freshmen orientation a week early for immersion classes.

Big Ten schools, including Purdue and Michigan State, whose East Lansing campus has weathered a 10-percent decline in international enrollment in the past couple years, may have seen overseas students as a cash cow in a time of declining state funding. Nathan Grawe, an economics professor at Carleton College, is the author of "Demographics And The Demand For Higher Education." Sure, he says, international students offer full tuition for schools, but their presence also helps underprivileged students.

NATHAN GRAWE: As they think about international students, I can't help but believe that they recognize that there's an opportunity, then, to invest and subsidize the education of the lower-income students, which is part of their mission, by attracting more full-pay students from abroad.

JASTRZEBSKI: Multiple admissions officials say the U.S. is no longer the education Mecca it once was, in part because of the perception that the welcome mat has been pulled by the Trump administration. Add to that better schools in countries like China and India and increased competition from those in countries like Australia. And combined, it likely adds up to fewer international students coming here. And if that continues, schools that have relied on those students' full-fare tuition will likely be facing even bigger budget gaps. For NPR News, I'm Stan Jastrzebksi.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBERT HAMMOND JR.'S "SPOOKY COUCH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.