Fewer international students are enrolling in Midwest colleges. At what cost?

Talal S. Alanazi from Saudi Arabia is staying enrolled at the University of Missouri despite President Donald Trump’s rhetoric and restrictive immigration and foreign travel policies.

He does it for MU’s “strong chemical engineering program” in Columbia. But just as important, he said, is that “the diversity here helped me to be open and understanding of different world traditions, which made me grow into a better and more cultured person.”

U.S. campuses across the country are seeing fewer students like Alanazi.

Since Trump stepped into the White House a year ago the number of international students at colleges has dropped significantly. Experts in part blame an unwelcoming climate fostered from the top down in the U.S.

“A significant proportion of institutions (56.8 percent) report that the U.S. social and political environment and feeling unwelcome in the United states are factors contributing to new international student declines,” said a recent report by The Institute of International Education.

The institute said the number of newly arriving international students declined an average 7 percent at colleges in the fall of 2017 compared to 2016. Some schools are seeing steeper drops.

The declines are like money — in the form of tuition dollars — pouring through a hole in some college purses. Many international students pay full freight on tuition to attend schools here.

Midwest schools, including some in Missouri and Kansas, are suffering hefty blows.

The University of Central Missouri at Warrensburg saw a notable decrease. International student enrollment fell from 2,638 in the fall of 2016 to 944 last autumn. The school had 695 international graduate students last autumn compared to 2,400 the previous fall.

The drop is costing the school about $14 million this year.

The Institute of International Education said 45 percent of campuses reported drops.

“On the other hand, 31 percent of campuses responding saw some increase in international enrollments,” said the institute’s Sharon Witherell. Twenty-four percent of the schools responding said their international student enrollment numbers remained stable.

Foreign students contribute about $36.9 billion into the U.S. economy each year in cost of living spending. According to the Association of International Educators, in 2016 these students were responsible for and supported more than 450,000 jobs in higher education, and in the accommodations, retail, transportation, telecommunications and health industries.

The Institute of International Education, however, has yet to calculate the full economic impact of the decline in new international students. Those numbers may not be available until June or July.

More international students are staying away, educators says, because of the uncertainty fueled by President Trump’s support of curbs on immigration of non-English speakers; his travel ban of people from six, mostly Muslim, countries into the U.S.; and his failure to immediately denounce white supremacist groups who marched across the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville last year. One woman was killed in the melee that followed.

It doesn’t appear the president intends to let up, given his vulgar comment just last week when he questioned why the U.S. would welcome immigrants from Haiti and some African nations.

“Concerns around the travel ban had a lot to do with concerns around personal safety based on a few incidents involving international students, and a generalized concern about whether they’re safe,” said Rajika Bhandari, head of research for the Institute of International Education.

She mentioned too that prospective students from India who were interviewed shortly after the election talked about fears regarding the racial climate in the United States. Those concerns, she said, were heightened after the shooting death in February 2017 of an Indian engineer in a bar in Olathe, Kan.

Srinivas Kuchibhotla was killed that winter night at Austins Bar & Grill, and his friend, Alok Madasani, was injured. Both worked at Garmin. Both were from India, but were possibly targeted because the shooter — who before he shot, yelled, “Get out of my country” — thought they looked “Middle Eastern.”

Bhandari said not all the fault in the decline rests in the U.S. Other factors include competition from other countries also seeking to enroll international students in their colleges, and the slowdown of two flagship study abroad programs in Saudi Arabia and Brazil.

Campuses in the Midwest, where most international students come from China, India, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea, seem to have been particularly hard hit by the enrollment decline.

Last year at the University of Central Missouri graduate international students made up 57.1 percent of the total graduate student population. This year they only make up 27.5 percent.

Jeff Murphy, a spokesman for the university, said factors contributing to the decline included economic struggles in some countries, particularly India, where most of the school’s graduate students are from.

But there were also issues related to obtaining visas to study in the United States; concerns related to safety in the United States, and federal policies that affect students overseas.

Avila University also saw fewer new international students in 2017 compared to 2016, a roughly an 11 percent decline.

At University of Missouri-Kansas City, enrollment of international non-resident students at UMKC this past fall numbered 1,160 compared to 1,373 in 2016, a decline of 15.5 percent.

At the University of Missouri Columbia campus international student numbers were down last fall by 285 students, a 12 percent drop.

In fall 2016, international students accounted for 7.06 percent of MU’s total student body. In 2017 it was 6.69 percent.

At Kansas State University, international student enrollment is down by 159 students.

At the University of Kansas, the number of international students has remained fairly stable over the last two years, said Erinn Barcomb Peterson, KU spokeswoman.

International students made up 8.6 percent of KU’s total enrollment in fall 2016 and 8.2 percent in 2017.

None of those schools has yet calculated their revenue loss from the enrollment drop.

Why does it matter whether campuses here can attract international students?

The Association of International Educators reports that in 2016, 10,231 international students in Kansas contributed $261 million to the state’s economy, while in Missouri 23,261 international students contributed $706 million.

But dollars, Bhandari said, are not the only loss.

“International students contribute to the globalization of U.S. campuses,” Bhandari said. “They bring an international and diverse perspective to U.S. classrooms.”

She said that only one out of 10 U.S. college students gets to study abroad, so international students on U.S. campuses are critical.

Also, she said, international students help drive science and innovation in the U.S. as well as create international ties between the U.S. and the rest of the world that fosters international cooperation.

While colleges are wrestling with the recent drop in international students on their campuses due in part to the national climate, MU has had its own set of issues that has affected its international student numbers, said Ryan Griffin , director of the Office of International Admissions at MU.

Referring to race-related campus protests of 2015, Griffin said that “damage to our reputation ripples out to the international student population.” He said that since many of the international students who might choose to attend MU come from some racial minority group, it is not so difficult for them to identify with the racial minority that led the 2015 camps protests at MU.

“It boils down to where students feel safe and feel inclusive,” Griffin said. “We realize that.”

It’s helps, Griffin said, that welcome messages to international students have come from University of Missouri System President Mun Choi, a native of South Korea, and MU Chancellor Alexander Cartwright, who is from the Bahamas.

Both “understand crossing borders to pursue your education goals,” Griffin said.

To counter the decline in international student enrollment some colleges, including MU, have tapped in to an online campaign called “You Are Welcome Here,” where schools create video messages on their websites targeting prospective students.

MU has gone a step further this year inviting students, faculty and administrators across campus to host international students over the fall and winter holiday breaks.

MU also launched an online international student ambassador program, where prospective students and their families can actually engage in a live online chat with an MU student from the student’s home country.

And if they hale from Saudi Arabia, they should talk to Alanazi, who is quick to share his positive experiences as an international student on the Columbia campus.

Mará Rose Williams: 816-234-4419, @marawilliamskc

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