Global Cooling

Why U.S. immigration policy is causing international students to sour on U.S. colleges, and how the tide can be reversed

In higher education, many colleges and universities view learning as something that isn’t constrained by classroom walls, campus boundaries, or even geographical borders. Many institutions point to their population of international students as proof that they’re facilitating the exchange of knowledge and ideas across cultures.

Over the past couple years, these institutions have had a tougher time recruiting students from abroad. New U.S. immigration policies — including new restrictions on visas for students who are Chinese nationals, as well as the controversial “travel ban,” which continues to restrict entry for nationals of certain Muslim-majority countries — are making some international students feel unwelcome, unsafe, or both. As a result, they’re less likely to enroll at American colleges and universities.

In 2018, the Institute for International Education reported a decline of 6.6 percent in new enrollment of international students at U.S. colleges, compared to the previous year. At the same time, a study published by the Canadian Bureau for International Education showed that international enrollment at Canadian colleges increased 16 percent from 2017 to 2018, following a 20 percent increase the year before.

For U.S. schools, this is a financial problem as much as an ideological one. Because many international students pay full tuition, these stats don’t just mean bad news for higher education’s institutional mission—they indicate a big hit to their bottom line, too.

The numbers make it clear: international admissions are fighting an uphill battle. But with smart communication strategies for reaching, recruiting, and retaining students from other countries, the climb can be a little easier to manage.

Remember that it’s not about you.

At least, it’s not all about you. Of course, you need to communicate your offerings for students from other countries. But you must also provide relevant, useful information that makes their journey easier to navigate. After all, you’re not just selling your organization. You’re selling the country. And as international students decide where to study abroad, they’re going to remember your college if you’re supportive and helpful throughout that process.

Be honest and open.

Yes, it’s something we all learned as kindergartners. But it applies here as well. Don’t sugarcoat or gloss over the current situation with visas and travel restrictions. International students are savvy enough to know that they’re going to face challenges here. Your job is to help them know what those challenges are ahead of time, so they can be prepared to handle them.

Follow through.

A global mindset shouldn’t stop at the admissions process. Make sure the experience for your international students is as smooth as possible, both before they arrive and long after they get here. If they run into issues along the way, do everything you can to help them through. We all know that the best ambassadors for your brand are those who have had a great experience. And if you can support international students through this tumultuous time, they’ll spread the word.

Get creative with your tactics.

We tell our clients this all the time, but it bears repeating: your brand is so much more than slick materials created by your marketing department. It lives in the decisions you make and the actions you take as an institution. So if global perspectives are important to your mission (and we’re assuming they are), prove it by creating programs and policies that make it easier on international students.

International enrollment is crucial to the mission and the balance sheets of colleges and universities across the country. Even if the tightening of U.S. immigration policy is short-lived, it could have a lasting effect on international students’ willingness to study here. We believe that the downward trends can be reversed—but it’s going to take long-term strategies and significant changes to the way universities operate and market themselves.