NAU Contrasts Trending National Decline In Foreign Student Enrollment

Sep 26, 2018

Credit NAU Center For International Education

Universities across the US are experiencing a decline in international student enrollment. Some school officials say the Trump administration’s immigration policies are to blame. Others say it’s a matter of cost and global competition. At any rate, Northern Arizona University is weighing the challenges, after welcoming its largest-ever group of international students. KNAU’s Aaron Granillo reports.


It’s the final day of orientation for NAU students from across the world. They sit down for a luncheon of foods from different countries and hear from guest speakers.

Welcoming orientation for NAU's incoming international students.
Credit KNAU/Aaron Granillo

"We’re so happy that you’re here. We’re so honored that you’ve chosen to come to NAU for a semester, for a year, for your degree,” says Daniel Palm, associate Vice President for Global Initiatives at NAU

This fall, foreign students make up about five percent of NAU’s student body. The numbers have risen steadily for at least a decade. 

"We’ve, during that time and previously, continue to see growth of our international student numbers in the range of two to four percent each year or higher in some cases," says Palm.

NAU is the only one of Arizona’s three public universities with an increase in foreign students this semester. It’s outpacing other American universities as well. A survey last year of more than 500 schools found a seven percent decline in new international enrollments.

"The challenge has really, I think in many ways, been a lot of the political noise here in the US," says Palm. "This has created challenges in a number of areas, particularly in regards to a student's perception of American institutions."

Daniel Palm, NAU Associate Vice President for Global Initiatives
Credit NAU Center For International Education

There are other factors too, like tighter rules for student visas, fears about school safety, and geopolitics. Palm says NAU has so far been unaffected because of its unique recruitment model. Staff travel all over the world, engaging students in person, speaking local languages, and collaborating with international schools.

"That really helps us to understand the local educational systems, government grants and funding that are available in those particular countries in those regions, which really helps us to navigate in ways that are different from other institutions from America,” says Palm.

Husain Aldawood is a 21-year-old-sophomore, studying mechanical engineering. He came to the United States from Saudi Arabia.

"I have been here for like almost two years," says Aldawood. "The community in NAU is the best I have ever seen."

But, Saudi Arabia is sending fewer students to NAU. There’s an 80 percent drop this year compared to last, mainly because the country drastically scaled back its government-funded scholarship program. Aldawood believes current anti-immigration rhetoric in the US isn't helping either.

NAU sophomore Husain Aldawood
Credit KNAU/Aaron Granillo

“When you hear the news, yeah, they’re giving a concept that foreign people are bad to United States," says Aldawood. "That's why it’s scary to enter the United States because I don’t know. I might get denied.”

Other countries appear to be capitalizing on that mindset. Australia, one of America’s biggest competitors for international students, saw a 15 percent enrollment increase last year. Canada was up 11 percent.

"But, it could be as simple as cost," says Paul Amadio, Head of Sedona’s Verde Valley School. It's an international boarding high school, and one of NAU’s recruitment pools.

"You can go to Canada for 30 percent less than you're going to pay on the dollar here to go to school," says Amadio. "They give a graduate student health insurance the moment they land in the country. They're welcoming them to finds jobs and be meaningful citizens."

Paul Amadio, Head of Verde Valley School in Sedona
Credit KNAU/Aaron Granillo

Amadio says that’s good incentive for international students, and could be one reason why application numbers are down at Verde Valley School for the first time since 2009.

"So we know that there's something afoot, but it's very premature because we're in the early stages of this," says Amadio. "It would be negligent of me not to be worried about it because I think we need to have kids from all over the world here to learn and discover together."

It’s good for business too because international students pay more tuition. According to the US State Department, foreign college students contributed nearly $37 billion to the US economy during the 2016-2017 academic year. Even though there’s currently a downward enrollment trend, the United States remains the top destination for international students.