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International student enrollment declines at UB

The U.S. faces growing competition in attracting international students, experts say


Rising costs in education, gun violence and growing competition from countries like Canada, Australia, Germany and the U.K. are just a few reasons administrators and students point to for the decline in new international enrollment UB saw this year.

UB’s drop in new international enrollment reflects national trends –– UB international students said it’s not just the Trump administration or gun violence steering the decision. The trends are reflective of a growing worldwide desire to attract international students. Stephen Dunnett, vice provost for international education, said the university is optimistic about its ability to recruit, despite the increasing competition.

“UB’s efforts to recruit and support international students are considered a best practice for other institutions to emulate,” Dunnett said. “The advantage that UB has is that we have a long and excellent reputation for hosting international students.”

International students, on the other hand, say they expect other countries to continue to catch up with the U.S., and the U.S. will have to adapt to compete.

“It’s not just Trump. You also have to consider that Indian institutions are getting better day-by-day,” said Celaster Denisraj, an industrial engineering graduate student. “Fifteen years ago, the U.S. was the only global place for education. But now, you can find countries with better scholarship programs who are trying to make their admissions more accessible to international students, because they do want to compete with the United States. It’s not just the U.S. anymore at the top. You have Germany, you have Australia, Canada. They want diversity, they want culture.”

American institutions are also among the most expensive, compared to countries like Germany, which offers free tuition. Still, every country has its drawbacks, Denisraj said.

“In Germany, it’s tuition-free, but it’s very difficult for international students to get jobs. They’re really reluctant.”

Many of the current issues impacting international enrollment are beyond the university’s immediate control and have more to do with the perception of the U.S. in general, according to Dunnett.

Dunnett said one of the factors influencing enrollment is a perceived risk of gun violence. In 2017, the U.S. saw 346 mass shootings, according to ABC; the most recent at a high school in Parkland, Florida.

“However, in our marketing, messaging and conversations with international students, UB actively seeks to inform prospective and current students about how welcoming and safe UB and our surrounding communities are,” Dunnett said in an email. “Also, many members of the university faculty are very involved, through their research and scholarship, in responding to issues of school violence and gun laws.”

Dunnett also cited President Satish Tripathi’s support for “enlightened” immigration policy, like DACA.

International students said gun violence in the U.S. is on the minds of international students when weighing one country over another, but usually, issues like post-graduate employment or availability of work visas are more important.

“There is always going to be a focus on [violence] in America. America is such a big country, with such a strong economy, everyone always is going to want to find its flaws, and they’re going to focus on what’s going wrong,” Denisraj said. “They don’t focus on that in India because something goes wrong every day. But when you think of America, despite all the hundreds of good things that are happening here, there’s a psychological tendency to focus on what’s going wrong.”

The decline in international enrollment predates the Trump administration, according to data from the Institute of International Education, despite the common thread that an “America-first” Trump presidency is deterring foreign students. Still, Dunnett said policies like the travel bans have had an impact.

Last year, Muslim students spoke with The Spectrum about their fears and concerns after Trump issued a travel ban toward a group of Muslim-majority countries, citing security concerns. The travel bans are currently stalled out in the courts, but students say the anti-immigrant “Trump brand” precedes matters of policy.

Some students say Trump’s rhetoric on immigration has had a psychological impact on prospective international students, one which individual universities aren’t likely to overcome.

Denisraj said in his experience, the concern is usually less over Trump’s policy, and more about the “feeling” international students have about the “Trump brand.”

Mithil Kadam, an industrial engineering student, said international students are highly attuned to American feelings toward immigrants, for better or for worse. Take for example, in 2015, when Google appointed second-generation immigrant Sundar Pichai as its CEO, Kadam said.

“That gives Indians this positive feeling like, ‘Oh, the U.S. is very accepting and welcoming of immigrants,” Kadam said. “It’s just a psychological thing, but it can be very powerful. And obviously, like with Trump, a negative psychological impact is always more powerful than a positive one.”

While the U.S. is still the top-ranked country for international enrollment, other countries are catching up, reports from the Institute of International Education show.

The declines UB is experiencing are not entirely homogenous from country to country. Some follow long-term demographic shifts, while others are the result of more recent foreign and domestic policy, Dunnett said.

For instance, UB has had fewer students from Saudi Arabia and Brazil because of reductions in scholarship support from their governments, whereas countries like Japan and Taiwan –– both of which used to send considerably larger numbers of students to the U.S. and to UB –– now face serious demographic changes resulting in fewer college-age students nationally.

On the other hand, UB has seen an increase in students from countries like Iran and Vietnam, according to Dunnett.

More and more, traditional “sending” countries such as China are seeking to attract larger numbers of international students, Dunnett said.

Part of the university’s plan to compete with other countries comes on the heels of a two-year-long task force, which looked into the university’s struggle to integrate international students into campus and classroom life.

In 2016, a task force of professors and administrators released a 160-page report, with more than 50 recommendations for improving international student integration on-campus and in the classroom.

Following the 2016 report, Provost Charles Zukoski charged a committee, chaired by vice provost Sean Sullivan to develop an implementation plan. The task force convened under three broad headings: Barbara Ricotta led the task force implementation for Student Life and Support Services; Jeff Smith chaired the Recruitment and Communications branch and John Wood chaired the Educational Strategy board.

The committee will present its findings and recommended implementations to the Faculty Senate in March and will be put into action as soon as the new Vice Provost for Inclusive Excellence is appointed, according to Dunnett.

In the meantime, Dunnett said schools have already started implementing some of the task force’s recommendations.

For example, both Dean Liesl Folks of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Dean Robin Schulze of the College of Arts and Sciences recently appointed associate deans to specifically address the academic needs of their international students. Other schools are considering such appointments as well, Dunnett said.

The Office of International Student and Scholar Services has also appointed a new position with expanded responsibilities for international student inclusion and engagement programs.

Sarah Crowley is the senior news editor and can be reached at

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