Penn State

Penn State international enrollment may be down this year. Is ‘political climate’ to blame?

Danielle Laureta holds a flag to promote the Penn State Filipino Association at the Involvement Fair on Thursday, August 29, 2019 on the HUB lawn.
Danielle Laureta holds a flag to promote the Penn State Filipino Association at the Involvement Fair on Thursday, August 29, 2019 on the HUB lawn.

Penn State is seeing a tapering off in international student enrollment numbers, which could be tied to a multitude of factors. But is it, as some news outlets have reported, due to Trump administration immigration and visa policies and the president’s “nationalist rhetoric”?

What’s the issue?

During a July Centre Region Council of Governments meeting, Penn State Director of Local Government and Community Relations Charima Young told COG members that Penn State is predicting decreased international student enrollment this year.

The number of international undergraduate paid accepts is down this year at Penn State, confirmed university spokesperson Lisa Powers, though official enrollment data will not be available until October.

The international student population at Penn State’s University Park campus has increased steadily over the past five years, with a slight dip in 2017 enrollment.

Last year, there were 1,744 first-year international students across all Penn State campuses, out of 15,162 total first-year students. University Park has the highest share of international students.

Last fall, 7,366 international students were enrolled at University Park, with 4,807 undergraduate and 2,528 graduate students. They made up about 6.3% of the school’s total enrollment, according to the Office of Planning and Assessment.

University statistics show the majority of international students studying at Penn State are from China, followed by India, South Korea, Taiwan and Saudi Arabia.

New international student enrollment across U.S. colleges and universities dropped 6.6% last year, and 7% over the past two years, mostly at the master’s degree level. Overall, international student enrollment has stagnated, though it grew by almost 60% between 2001 and 2016, according to the International Institute of Education.

The Penn State Vietnamese Student Association at the club fair on Thursday, August 29, 2019 on the HUB lawn. Abby Drey

What’s the effect?

International students have started to make up a greater share of students at institutions of higher education, according to a brief by Alex Usher, president of Higher Education Strategy Associates, in the higher education journal “Education Next.”

“Increasing the number of international students has been an important way for many institutions to maintain expenditure levels in the face of stagnating or declining domestic income sources,” he wrote. With public institutions receiving less state funding after the 2008 recession, he wrote, many turned to increasing revenue through international student enrollment.

Beyond the economic impact, Powers said that international students also contribute to both the diversity of the university and the community.

“International students and scholars provide a huge benefit to our university in terms of economic, academic and cultural contributions, and at Penn State we work hard to create a welcoming environment,” she said.

At Penn State, there aren’t readily available statistics on the share of international student tuition as part of the budget, but the Office of Global Support says “there is virtually no financial aid for international undergraduate students” and little aid for graduate students, who mostly rely on graduate assistantships.

Powers said international populations help “our U.S.-born students gain a more global mindset and broader world view in a vast array of areas, like the environment, politics, culture, history and science, to name just a few.”

Penn State international clubs promote their organizations at the club fair on Thursday, August 29, 2019 on the HUB lawn. Abby Drey

Why are the numbers dropping?

Several factors — including those domestic and abroad — could be contributing to this decrease in international student enrollment, Usher wrote.

First of all, youth cohort sizes are decreasing from China, which contributes 50% of total foreign students in the U.S. Higher tuition costs (mostly for private universities) and a lack of financial aid for international students may price certain universities out of the international market. But a “harsher visa regime” in the U.S. “can be placed squarely at the feet of the Trump administration,” Usher wrote.

“Unfortunately, this (enrollment decline) is something universities across the United States are experiencing due in large part to the political climate and changes in policy and processes occurring in Washington, D.C. We won’t know what the impact on total enrollments will be until the census in October,” Powers said.

Theories about America’s loss of “attractiveness” abroad under the Trump administration are corroborated by various surveys from Pew Research Center, Usher wrote, though there is evidence the country’s attractiveness numbers among international students prior to Trump’s election were already dwindling.

The U.S. government does not publish statistics on the rejection rate for student visas, Usher wrote, so there is no way to tell whether State Department policies are contributing to a tougher visa approval process. But university officials believe visa issues are a large part of the problem. In 2018, there was a 49 percentage point jump in higher education institutions that reported visa delays and denials were a factor in decreasing international student enrollment, according to the Institute of International Education’s annual “hot topics” survey.

Though this year’s international student enrollment won’t be available until mid-October, State College Borough Council member Dan Murphy said at an Aug. 19 meeting that University Park will welcome 600 new undergraduate international students this semester and several hundred more graduate students.

“I know there’s been lots of concern in the country about whether or not we would continue to be a destination for people around the world to come and learn ... and I’m so thrilled that those individuals, despite everything happening in the world and their own country’s warnings ... have chosen to join us,” he said.

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Sarah Paez covers Centre County communities, government and town and gown relations for the Centre Daily Times. She studied English and Spanish at Cornell University and grew up outside of Washington, D.C.