Political climate may deter international grad students, UMN officials say

The University of Minnesota is tracking international graduate student enrollment and application rates carefully in light of the political climate.

Helen Sabrowsky

Though numbers of international graduate students at the University of Minnesota are increasing, the school still lags behind the national average for international grad student enrollment.

University officials worry the current political climate could reverse the trend of growth at the University and other institutions. Some say existing burdens on international students — like challenges in their job hunts — combined with current events like tax reform could also threaten international student enrollment.

International students make up about 25 percent of the University’s graduate student population this year, up 5 percent from 2007, according to the Office for Institutional Research. 

Nationwide, about 30 percent of all graduate students at universities with research activity comparable to the University of Minnesota’s were international students in 2015, according to most recent available data from the Council of Graduate Schools and the Graduate Record Examinations Board. 

The number of international students applying to U.S. graduate schools dropped significantly after 9/11, but has recovered steadily since, said Dean Tsantir, director of graduate admissions at the University. 

As of Dec. 4, University graduate school applications were down 6 percent compared to last year, Tsantir said.

Some universities are worried that the Trump administration’s position on immigration might impact their international student populations.

Many international students at the University said they no longer felt wanted in the U.S. after President Donald Trump enacted an immigration ban affecting seven countries in February. Some were making plans to return home or find jobs in other countries they perceived as more welcoming.

Similarly, international graduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison — which has similar university-wide international graduate student enrollment — are becoming increasingly concerned about attitudes toward noncitizens because of the national political climate around immigration, Tina Hatch, University of Wisconsin-Madison interim associate director of International Student Services, said in an email.

International student enrollment at the school remains steady, but it’s hard to predict whether that will change, Hatch said.

At the University of Minnesota, officials are tracking international applications and enrollment statistics closely in response to the current administration’s rhetoric and stance on immigration, Tsantir said.

In addition to the political climate, some say there are a number of burdens on international students in the U.S. that may deter students from applying to American schools. 

Sean Chen, an international graduate student studying chemistry at the University, said the tax bill moving through Congress that would increase graduate students’ out-of-pocket costs is adding to international students’ worries, since they already pay more than American students in tuition. 

Plus, Hatch said international students face challenges in their job hunts after graduation, as there is more pressure around post-completion employment due to their student visa status. 

Student visa requirements also make it more difficult to transfer schools or programs once an international student is attending a school in the U.S., she said. 

International students also face language and cultural barriers, Chen said. The American education system is different than other countries, making the adjustment even more difficult for international graduate students, he said.