After decades of upward-trending international enrollment, SVSU and other universities across the U.S. are seeing steep declines in enrollment and international student visa acceptance rates.
International enrollment at SVSU is down 18.38 percent from last year. Of the 8,265 students enrolled at SVSU for the Fall 2019 semester, 413 are international students, which is about 5 percent of the student population.
According to a report by the State Department and the Institute of International Education, international enrollment in American universities fell by an average of 6.6 percent in 2018.
Jenna Briggs, SVSU’s senior director of Advanced Studies and International Student Services, said other universities, such as Michigan State University, have seen higher decreases. State News, MSU’s on-campus newspaper, said Chinese student enrollment alone is down about 21 percent since 2015.
Briggs said the decrease negatively affects the local economy and puts SVSU domestic students at a disadvantage. Students lose the experience of interacting with diverse populations, which is an important skill in the modern workplace.
She said many American universities rely on Chinese students as their main source of international students. However, she said SVSU has many more Saudi Arabian and Nepali students than most universities, which has helped SVSU keep its international enrollment from sinking as low as other universities, such as MSU.
“China and Saudi Arabia are the big two everywhere,” she said. “We do have a little higher of a Saudi percentage than other colleges and universities. Part of that is word of mouth. Students have a great experience here. They’re well taken care of, and they tell others.”
During the 2014-2015 academic year, Briggs said SVSU had about 5 percent of all Saudi Arabian students studying in the U.S.
While most universities also have a large South Korean population, SVSU has a large Nepali population.
“Five percent doesn’t seem like a lot, but think about that. There are 4,000 universities in the U.S.,” Briggs said. “We had 5 percent of all Saudis studying here.”
Visa denial rates increase
Briggs said a significant decrease in visa acceptance rates has led to lower international enrollment rates for most American universities.
“The sharp decline that has been nationwide is really attributed to students just getting their visas denied at much higher levels than they have in the past since 2016,” she said.
Before 2016, Briggs said SVSU’s average visa denial rate was 5 to 10 percent.
“If we had a 10 percent visa denial rate, that was considered pretty high,” she said. “Pair that with the falls of 2017, 2018 and 2019, the visa denial rate has been anywhere between 65 and 80 percent, with some countries being 100 percent.”
Concerns over American culture
Another factor Briggs said contributes to a lack of international students coming to the U.S. is concerns over the U.S. culture and climate. She said some students wonder if they are welcomed in the U.S.
“Even as close as Canada, we get that,” she said. “I was in Toronto in the spring, and we had Canadian students wondering if it was safe to study in the United States.”
To alleviate these concerns, Briggs said International Programs has recent international alumni tell their first-hand accounts of studying at SVSU. The office also promotes its Hate has no Home Here campaign campuswide, giving out a sticker reading “Hate has no Home Here” to any office that wants students to know they welcome people from all walks of life.
“You go by President Bachand’s office, and he has that sticker in his window,” Briggs said. “The Board of Control has one outside of its door. So, it’s sending a very clear message to our international students that, ‘You are welcome here. You are safe here. You are valued here.’”
She said SVSU also has foot-washing stations and prayer rooms in second floor Wickes, and the Doan offers halal options to make international students feel more welcomed.
Aranya Biswas, an economics senior from Bangladesh, said his international adviser helped him feel at home when he first came to SVSU.
“Overall, life at SVSU has been the best part of my life thus far,” he said. “SVSU has provided me with a lot of opportunities that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I have been part of many clubs, two different fellowships and got to do research.”
Biswas said that, like most international students, homesickness has been his biggest challenge to overcome. While he said he has overall felt welcomed in the U.S., he has faced situations that made him uncomfortable.
“There was one particulate instance at a restaurant where things got a little tense after an older individual made a rather insensitive comment, but I just ignored it and moved on,” he said. “That was honestly the only time I felt attacked because of my race. But, other than that, I haven’t had any instances of times when I felt unwelcome, especially at SVSU.”
Economic effects of the decline
The downward International enrollment has hurt Michigan’s economy, Briggs said.
A study by The National Association of Foreign Student Advisers said international students brought over $26 million to Michigan’s fifth congressional district during the 2017-2018 academic year. This district includes Delta College, Northwood University, Kettering University and SVSU. During this period, 1,489 international students lived in the fifth congressional district, with 630 of those coming from SVSU.
“Think about that – $26 million – not just in tuition, but the overall impact on the community,” Briggs said. “So, they live off-campus, they’re shopping, they’re eating, they’re buying gas. I mean, it is absolutely huge.”
Effects on domestic students Briggs said the most crucial impact on the decline in the international population is the fact that it prevents students from bettering their lives and the lives of domestic students.
“It hurts our domestic students because, for a lot of them, that’s the most international experience they’ve had,” she said. “We have so many freshmen who have never left the country, sitting next to a student from China, Saudi Arabia, Nepal or wherever. That’s the most international experience they’ve had.”
For domestic students, the decline means they will not be able to interact with diverse populations before entering the job market. Briggs said this puts them at a disadvantage when they graduate.
“When you’re in the ‘real world,’ you’re never going to get a professional job where you go into an office, and you don’t have to interact with somebody that’s different in one way, shape or form than you,” she said. “So, that’s the real hurt.”
Exploring new markets
To make up for the decrease in international students, Briggs said Whitney Cohen, an international recruiter for the university, has been traveling to explore different markets.
“(Cohen’s) been working hard and traveling a ton as we try to break into new markets, knowing that, in a lot of those traditional markets where we’ve gotten students in the past, the visas aren’t there,” Briggs said.
One of the new markets SVSU explored this year was East Africa.
“We had a record number of students enroll from the continent of Africa this year, which is great because it adds to the diversity on campus as well,” Briggs said.
Future enrollment trends Briggs said that no matter the results of the 2020 presidential election, the decrease in international enrollment will remain an issue for higher education for years to come.
“We saw this happen in Canada,” she said. “Part of the reason why we saw this huge surge in the United States in 2013 was that Canada started to change all its visa laws. They started limiting their visas for international students. They started limiting their OPT opportunities. Their international student market tanked, and we were the benefactors of that.”
While Canada reversed its new visa laws two years later, Briggs said it took six years after the reversal for Canada to start seeing international student enrollment increase again. She said she expects the U.S. to experience similar international enrollment declines.
“It’s not going to be a flip of the switch,” she said. “Regardless of what happens, we’re going to continue to need to seek out new opportunities in international markets. We’re going to continue to have to do the amazing job we do campus-wide on retaining our international students.”
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