UMN works to fend off international student decline

Despite increase efforts to attract students, University officials say there are many factors beyond their control.

Austen Macalus

Facing declines in international student enrollment, the University of Minnesota is bolstering efforts to combat what’s become an increasingly challenging problem for schools across the country.  

The University saw a 24 percent drop in international student enrollment this academic year compared to last fall. This reflects national trends, which shows declining international enrollment over the past two years; last year undergraduate enrollment fell by 6 percent nationwide, according to data from the Institute of International Education.

With the college admissions process in full swing, University officials hope more aggressive recruitment efforts, revamped scholarships and programs connecting with prospective students will rebut a litany of factors contributing to declining numbers.

International students made up less than 5 percent of this academic year’s freshman class, compared to over 6 percent last fall. The number of international freshmen is the lowest since 2013 for the University. 

Officials say current political climate, difficulties with visas and increased international competition for students are among several problems affecting enrollment. 

“It is a very perplexing trend. In some ways not entirely surprising given that there’s been a lot of additional constraints put on international students trying to get into the country,” said Bob McMaster, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education. “There’s a set of external factors that are certainly affecting what’s going on.”

Although many challenges are beyond the University’s control — such as Canada’s increased recruitment efforts or more stringent visa requirements — he said the recent non-resident tuition increase, a 15 percent bump for international students, didn’t help.

McMaster said the University would like to bump up international student enrollment again next fall. But he admits it’s a challenging feat.

“It’s getting harder and harder to predict the behavior of 18-year-olds, especially 18-year-olds that are living half the world away,” he said. “Cross our fingers that with everything we’re doing, we’re going to be getting that number back up a bit.”

One of the most important recruitment efforts is face-to-face interaction, said Barbara Kappler, director of the University’s International Student and Scholar Services.

She said the University’s two full-time international recruiters have beefed up efforts to connect with students on the ground. In the past two years, University alumni and staff have visited over 40 countries to recruit students. 

“We are being very active in listening to students, listening to their families,” Kappler said. “Helping families and prospective students connect to what the University of Minnesota offers.”

The University also works to connect prospective international students with their peers on campus, said Aimee Thostenson, director of international student recruitment. 

Peer-to-peer conversations can help quell fears that international student families may have. For example, Thostenson said many families express anxiety over the country’s numerous mass shootings and question whether students will be safe in the U.S.

“We want students to talk to other students who had a good experience here. Who can say, ‘This is how it is for me. [This is] my day-to day reality. And the University of Minnesota is a good place to be,’” she said.

Other efforts are focused on easing the cost of school. Thostenson said the University has revamped scholarships for international students, providing large awards to attract students for the fall of 2019. 

“We’re hoping that sends a good message that we are interesting in attracting students from all over the world here,” she said.

The University was one the first schools to sign on to the #YouAreWelcomeHere scholarships, which will cover a minimum of 50 percent of two international students’ tuition next fall. 

Despite the challenges, Thostenson and Kappler are optimistic about their recruiting efforts for the next academic year. 

“We’re still quite hopeful and confident. With the students and families we do meet with, there is significant interest in the University of Minnesota,” Kappler said. “There are a number of reasons why we are a really good place to study and those haven’t changed.” 

Kappler said the University continues to place a high value on international students. 

It’s still too early to determine if the University’s efforts will pay off next fall. Preliminary data from the Institute of International Education suggests recent international declines are starting to subside. 

However, Thostenson said there is a “a perfect storm” of issues that are making it difficult for the University to attract international students. 

“Everything coming together all at one time makes it a particularly challenging time to recruit international students,” she said.