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International Student Enrollment Drop Is A Big Financial Drain On Colleges And Universities

UC Student Association President Aidan Arasasingham. His group is pushing for a needs assessment to better serve the system's international students. (Courtesy of Aidan Arasasingham)
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California's universities have attracted tens of thousands of international students every year -- but enrollment has been slowing and it's even shrunk at some campuses. And now COVID-19 is making matters worse.

Enrollment had surged for a decade -- and because international students usually pay the full costs of tuition, fees, and room and board, it was a godsend to colleges and universities struggling financially after the 2008 recession.

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Now, a new report by the government-funded research organization OpenDoors shows a nearly 2% drop in international student enrollment in United States higher education last year. Some Southern California colleges and universities are seeing this and much higher decreases.

The coronavirus pandemic is certainly one of the culprits. But international student enrollment had already been declining before the pandemic. Some blame the Trump Administration's xenophobic rhetoric and tightening of visa policies for figuratively yanking the welcome mat out from under these students.

"If you make it difficult for international students to get a job after graduating from a U.S. university, then why should they come and spend so much money to get a U.S. education when it's hard to get a job in the US?" said Gaurav Khanna, an economist at UC San Diego.

College campus' shift to online instruction during the pandemic is bound to sharpen the enrollment drops even further, he said.

Santa Monica College, one of the most aggressive recruiters of international students among California community colleges, said about 200 fewer international students enrolled this fall, out of a total population of about 2,000.

"In part it has to do with our online environment. Because a lot of students, when we went online, returned home," said Pressian Nicolov, dean of the college's International Student Center.

He said the students felt that online classes were poor substitute for the full campus experience, and taking classes remotely in the middle of the night from their home countries adds to the difficulty.

Nicolov says the college is increasing its in-person offerings for international students this spring to attract more international students.

The slowdown of international student enrollment comes at a time when US colleges and universities need these students' money and know-how the most.


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About a decade ago, as the recession hit California universities hard, campuses began recruiting and admitting a lot more international students. Universities charge international students about double the tuition that residents pay."Universities had to turn to a source of revenue to kind of tide themselves over this period," Khanna said.

The UC system enrolled 13,000 international students in the fall of 2010. That number skyrocketed to 41,000 in the fall of 2019. And as UCLA notes in its admissions guidelines, international students who aren't U.S. citizens or permanent residents are not eligible for scholarships or financial aid.

"International students must prove that they have sufficient funds available to them to pay for their educational and living expenses," which top six figures for a four-year degree, the admissions guidelines say.

The 10-campus University of California system enrolled about 41,000 international students in the fall of 2019. (Robyn BecK/AFP via Getty Images)

With 6,000 international students, millions are flowing into UCLA from those students. But international student enrollment dropped 3% last year, a big hit as the UC system faces the financial fallout from the pandemic.

International student enrollment at the California State University system peaked at 20,000 in fall of 2015 after going up about 8,000 in the previous three years. USC is one of the top destinations for international students -- their enrollment increased from 13,000 in 2015 to 17,000 in 2019.

Santa Monica College is comparatively dirt cheap for international students, who pay $4,500 in tuition for a yearly full-time load. Still, that's eight times higher than the costs for California residents.

"It does subsidize many, many, many support programs," Nicolov said. "I understand that it subsidizes the in-partner counseling program, and many other key support services that all students receive."


California remains a favorite destination for international students.

Students from China make up the majority of international students. There are also large numbers of students from India and South Korea.

As California universities opened their doors wider following the recession, they attracted people like Nox Yang, a second-year student at UCLA who's studying sociology and filmmarking. She remembers growing up in northern China in a small-town educational system with little room for creativity.

"I didn't like it when I was growing up because everything has a standard answer, and you have to memorize the templates, everything. You are not allowed to have your own thoughts," she said.

Nox Yang is a UCLA student from China. She studies sociology and filmmaking. (Courtesy Nox Yang)

President Trump's scapegoating of China has led her to consider going back to China.

"There has been a lot of violence, and a lot of... xenophobia especially since COVID, so a lot of [Chinese international students] don't feel safe," she said.

She said she knows many fellow students from China who didn't come back to UCLA this quarter. Some have chosen to enroll at universities in Canada and Australia insteads.

Yang says she's driven by a mission to enlighten the general population about the complexity of the Chinese international student population. That's the topic of a film she's working on now.


College administrators see strong international student enrollment as good for both campus budgets and the academic environment.

"I think there's enormous benefit to having international students come [to] be educated here," said Interim UC Irvine Provost Hal Stern. "Many of them stay and become very significant contributors to our economy and to our country."

But that became harder as the Trump admistration tightened work visa restrictions over the last four years. Stern said international student enrollment on his campus dropped by about 200 students this fall and stands at about 6,000. He's hopeful that the incoming Biden administration will help put out the welcome mat once again for these students.

But some international students think that may not be enough.

"I feel that I'm not welcome. And I feel that I'm disposable... and I have to leave if the government tells me to leave," said UC Davis international student Kymberley Chu.

But she hasn't lost hope. She's in her fourth year and has joined the University of California Student Association to work on a survey of international student needs in the system in order to push campuses to better serve students like her.