Survey: International student enrollment at Illinois universities growing, but more slowly

2017-11-13 | Chicago Tribune

Nov. 13--More international students attended Illinois colleges and universities last year, but that growth is becoming more modest locally and nationally, according to newly released data.

Illinois schools enrolled 52,225 international students in 2016-17, the fifth-most in the country and about 1,900 more than the year before, according to the Institute of International Education's annual Open Doors study, released Monday.

That 3.8 percent change is the smallest recent increase, following growth of 8.1 percent, 9.5 percent and 8.7 percent in the previous three school years. That amounts to over 13,000 more international students over the past five years, the majority of whom hail from China and India, according to the study.

American universities have long courted international students to diversify campuses and bolster their enrollment and tuition revenue. U.S. schools hosted about 1.08 million international students in 2016-17, the second straight year that total hit seven figures. Still it is one of the smallest percent increases recorded in the past decade.

The study does not include complete data since President Donald Trump was elected. Multiple attempts by the Trump administration to institute a travel ban stirred confusion for universities and prospective students over the direction of immigration law.

Current and recent international students in Chicago said American universities offer some of the best research opportunities in the world, particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Students and IIE leaders agreed political changes in the U.S. and stiffer competition from other countries are influencing the market for recruiting international students, though the full effects may not be known for a few years.

Boxuan Zhao, who earned a Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Chicago earlier this year, said American schools are not necessarily the default option for Chinese students seeking advanced degrees.

"There are definitely more programs being created in Europe, and I do know a lot of students are starting to turn toward Europe for study abroad," said Zhao, 27, now a postdoctoral research fellow in genetics at Stanford University. "I personally have a few friends in the U.K., in Germany, so I think they're really enjoying their time there."

Sankul Rawat, a University of Illinois at Chicago graduate student in computer science, said many of his peers in India are choosing Canada over the U.S.

"Actually the main reason (for) this shift is because of the politics," said Rawat, 25. "Because right now students are thinking about how these immigration policies are going to change. Everyone is skeptical (about the) travel ban -- (or) if there is any kind of ban."

So far, this fall, schools are seeing wildly different dynamics with international student enrollment. Of nearly 500 schools IIE surveyed, 45 percent showed drops while the majority of schools reported increases or no change.

Illinois schools popular among international students added hundreds to their rosters in 2016-17 and are seeing even more growth this fall.

International enrollment at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign grew 4.1 percent in 2017 to 11,198 students, according to university data. Three-fourths are from China, India and South Korea.

More than 1,100 new undergraduate and graduate international students enrolled at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign this fall, spokeswoman Robin Kaler said.

"With all of the changes and conversations about international students and immigration this year, I think everybody was wondering what these numbers would look like and what prospective students would decide to do," Kaler said. "It was nice to see that students still had confidence in us and still wanted to be here."

UIC added 372 international students to its enrollment this fall, totaling 3,517, according to school data. Almost all the growth on the Near West Side campus came from undergraduates: from 566 last fall to 936.

Targeted recruiting of undergraduate international students is a new initiative for UIC, according to Neal McCrillis, vice provost for global engagement. Undergraduates now comprise 26.6 percent of UIC's international student body, compared to 16 percent in 2014.

The situation is reversed at Northwestern. New undergraduates increased from 115 in 2006 to 277 last fall, school data show. New graduates during the same period increased from 424 to a high of 1,625 in 2014, dropping to 1,511 last year.

The Evanston-based school increased its international student body from 5,062 in 2015 to 5,363 last year, according to IIE data. Northwestern officials did not have finalized data available for fall 2017.

"Our numbers have grown steadily over the last 10 years or so," said Ravi Shankar, director of Northwestern's International Office. "We don't fluctuate a whole lot only because we don't do a whole lot of recruitment that we don't need to. If the growth in the master's programs continues, we should be OK."

The Illinois Institute of Technology and University of Chicago also added hundreds to their international student enrollment in 2016, according to the IIE report. School officials were not available for comment and did not provide data for fall 2017.

International student enrollment nationwide grew 3.4 percent, though IIE officials say that is primarily due to an increase in already-enrolled students staying in the country longer to complete Optional Practical Training in their academic fields. The number of new international students enrolling at U.S. schools fell 3 percent in 2016, the first time in six years this figure declined, according to the IIE.

IIE President Allan E. Goodman called the findings "a wake-up call" that should spur colleges and universities to reassess recruitment strategies.

"There's continuing concern about cost, there's continuing concern about campus safety, concerns about the complexity of our application process," Goodman said. "That has been evident over the past couple of years. We'll know a lot more next year."

For the Chicago students, U.S. schools offered clear advantages.

"You get access to a lot of really cutting-edge technologies and, generally speaking, the funding is not a real issue when compared to China," said Zhao, who has studied genetics in China and the U.S. "Sometimes there will be some limits when it comes to certain types of research. In the States, it will be much more free."

IIT was the ideal match for Ola Odukoya, a third-year student from Nigeria pursuing a career in urban planning.

"I'm in the architecture field, so this is the perfect place for me," said Odukoya, 21. "You have people like Frank Lloyd Wright. There are so many amazing firms here. Chicago is one of the biggest cities in America, so there is always so much to do other than school."

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