Following a campaign season often perceived abroad as bordering on xenophobic, amid Trump administration travel bans and in the wake of racially charged violence against immigrants, the allure of American college campuses appears to be fading.
In Kansas City, Lawrence, Manhattan and Columbia — as at schools across the country — fresh anxieties are driving down college applications from overseas.
One national report suggests international students have become increasingly apprehensive about studying at American colleges and universities.
Consider the University of Missouri-Kansas City. The numbers of foreign students applying for admission has fallen noticeably in recent years. At this point in 2015, applications from students overseas were 21 percent below the year before. Last year, the number of foreign student applications dropped 9 percent.
This year, the number of foreign students looking to enroll at UMKC dropped by more than half. Immigration uncertainty, combined with the recent killing of a man from India — which funnels more students to campus than any other foreign country — drove international applications at UMKC from 1,525 this time last year to 664 this spring.
Several other factors could be at play. The value of the dollar relative to other currencies can dramatically alter the true cost of coming to the United States for college. Likewise, tumbling oil prices can mean a drastic change in the fortunes of Gulf states, and their people’s ability to afford American tuition and rent.
Yet at the national and local level, recruiters point to the proposed travel ban and the tone of the 2016 election to explain why prospective students now think twice about coming to the United States for a college degree.
“When you have, in the news, information about visas not being renewed, or you find yourself not being able to come, it’s concerning to students and potential students,” said Grant Chapman, the interim associate provost for international programs at Kansas State University.
It’s too early in the application process in Manhattan for the fall semester to tell whether the international numbers might drop this year. Spot checks at other campuses in the region showed much the same thing. At the University of Missouri-Columbia, administrators report a significant drop, without citing numbers. At Park University, the numbers appear flat.
National groups say an American diploma still carries a premium cachet, even as they’re seeing a new reluctance to pursue college in a country on the verge of game-changing rules on who can immigrate for a higher education.
“There’s a chilling effect,” said Hironao Okahana, an assistant vice president of research and policy analysis at the Council of Graduate Schools. “You’re seeing … prospective international students in a wait-and-see mode.”
At UMKC, recruiters saw increased anxiety when President Donald Trump first issued an executive order that banned travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries. A court ruling put that action on hold, but Trump issued a follow-up order that applied to six countries and didn’t reach as far to limit travel to immigrants with existing visas or other permissions to be in the country.
Still, international students at UMKC and others thinking about coming to the university have wondered how welcome they’d be, said Tamara Byland, the school’s director of admissions and international student affairs.
She said the Olathe shooting has students — and perhaps more critically, their parents — newly concerned about safety. That’s particularly true of those from India — the largest source of international students on campus. Last year, the school had received 915 applications from India by the spring. This year, that’s down to 405.
“For Indian students, there is now more of a concern about safety when they’re in the United States,” Byland said. “We’re working really hard to let them know that UMKC and the surrounding environment is a welcoming community.”
Still, she said, it’s hard to counsel them on where U.S. immigration policy might land. A federal judge in Hawaii has issued a temporary restraining order putting Trump’s revised travel ban on hold nationally.
The immediate uncertainty about immigration rules could pose a long-term threat to recruitment. Many students at U.S. schools followed their parents or older siblings to the same campuses. A redirection of that recruitment pipeline might carry on for generations.
“If there becomes a shift where they start going to Australia or Canada when they’re looking for an education in English-speaking countries” — Canada has been aggressive in trying to fill the void — “that could change patterns,” Byland said. “That is certainly something we’re watching.”
Currently, more than 34,500 international students attend colleges and universities in Kansas and Missouri. One group suggests that when you add the two states together, those students’ presence here creates more than 10,000 jobs and nearly $1 billion a year in added economic activity.
The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers conducted the recent survey about applications from prospective international students. It showed 39 percent of schools seeing a decline in applications. The same report, conducted after anecdotal reports from schools, found another 35 percent of institutions with an uptick in applications from foreign students. About a fourth showed applications from foreign students holding steady.
But the numbers had been increasing regularly for at least a decade. A plateau in those applications, said the association’s deputy director Melanie Gottlieb, “would definitely be news.”
“It’s going to require a massive p.r. campaign,” she said, “to keep students coming here.”