What’s ahead for international student enrollment at U.S. colleges?

Following three years of declines in the number of new international students enrolling at U.S. colleges and universities, institutions are shifting their recruitment strategies to cast a wider net abroad, appeal to budget-conscious students, and connect with potential applicants already living in the United States.

To better understand “the new international student” and how colleges have responded, The Chronicle of Higher Education spoke with admissions officers, high school counselors, global education experts, and other stakeholders. Many colleges and universities, The Chronicle writes, “have prioritized global engagement in their institutional missions” and recognize that international students bring vital perspectives to campus. Colleges also “have come to rely on the tuition paid by foreign students to fill budgetary holes left by state-funding cuts and a shrinking pool of domestic students.”

Many countries with unmet demand for higher education 

Chinese student enrollments at U.S. colleges have leveled off after a decade of rapid growth, prompting institutions to deepen their relationships with other countries where educational demand outpaces supply. Those include India—already the second largest source of international students for U.S. colleges—and neighboring countries such as Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh. Recruiters also are focusing on countries in Africa, where 60 percent of the population is younger than 25 years old. In sub-Saharan Africa, just 10 percent of the college-age population is enrolled in higher education.

International students increasingly focused on value, employability

However, in reaching out to a broader array of countries, colleges are recruiting more students with lower family incomes—and finding that those students are “looking for value,” rather than just prestige. Nearly 60 percent of international students fund their degrees with personal or family income, and few American colleges and universities offer financial aid for international students. 

Related: Emerging loan industry looks to boost access for international students >

International students, seeing the dearth of available scholarships and lenders, are increasingly focused on colleges with a lower price point, especially “regional public universities, where tuition can cost just a third of what it does on the flagship campus,” Rahul Choudaha, a U.S.-based international-education expert, told The Chronicle. Students also seek out specialized programs that are tightly mapped to employment opportunities.

Related: Georgetown urges continuation of program allowing international students to work >

American institutions finding international applicants right in their ‘backyards’

Budget-conscious colleges and universities, meanwhile, are finding a new pipeline of potential international applicants among the 245,000 students from abroad who already live in the United States, many of them enrolled in two-year colleges, language institutes, and high schools. The Chronicle notes that these students not only have “already expressed an interest in studying in the United States,” but also have obtained visas, can visit campuses, and may have an easier cultural transition.

One company, called Rekruut, is helping colleges connect with this pool of students and streamline the transfer pathway for international students who are enrolled in two-year programs and wish to earn a bachelor’s degree. “Right now international transfer is riding the coattails of domestic transfer, and that can only take you so far,” said Peter Phippen, one of Rekruut’s founders.

Topics in this story

Next Up

Classroom competition may fuel first-gen students’ imposter syndrome, researchers say

Perceived competition in STEM courses may be an overlooked barrier for first-generation college students, according to a recent study.