Enrollment Declines: Fewer International Students Choose Clark

International Enrollment is down at Clark, and recent national policy and immigration reform might be responsible, according to Clark administrators and students.

International student enrollment has declined seven percent in the United States since last fall, the first decline in years, with a six percent loss in Washington from Fall 2016-17, according to data provided by Director of International Programs Jane Walster.  She said that losing students impacts the campus’ cultural diversity and its budget.

Beka Yosef, a first year international student from Ethiopia, said he doesn’t think current immigration policies are helping people. “My friends and family are amazed that there would be a wall boundary between two countries,” Yosef said. “I’m surprised because most places in Africa don’t have a wall.”

Yosef said he would like to see more people able to travel to the United States, and that immigration policies should make it easier for people to travel here.

He was required to take an English proficiency test, be interviewed by a consulate official, provide transcripts from schools, submit application forms costing hundreds of dollars, prove with bank statements he has one year’s worth of financial support about $20,000 for Clark and prove his intent to return to Ethiopia.  “For people from my country, it is really hard to get this opportunity to come and study here,” Yosef said.

Clark has received 11 international student applications for Spring quarter. Walster said the number is considered low, especially since only a third of applicants are expected to attend.

“The number of students coming into the United States is down this year, and the number of students going to Canada is up by 22 percent, Germany up by 6 percent, Australia up by 14 percent,” Walster said. “ So we know where students are going.”  

Walster said that exit interviews from Clark international students and reports from the Institute of International Education, a nonprofit institution that promotes international study, said “incidents of violence or at least unfriendly attitudes” are some of the concerns of international students and their families. An IIE fall admissions survey of Middle Eastern students reported that 50 percent were concerned about securing and maintaining visas and 41 percent reported concerns about feeling unwelcome in the United States.

Walster said that visa insecurity became very serious after 9/11 and the creation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. She said Immigrations and Customs is just one department under Homeland Security that has database access to all international student information in the United States and their homes abroad.

Walster said this year Immigration and Customs Enforcement called her and said they may no longer be able to give advance warning if there is a problem with an international student.  “They are trying to be helpful, but the message from above is that security is tightening up,” Walster said.

International student numbers at Clark have fluctuated in the past five years, from a surge of students from Saudi Arabia to the impact of the nationwide decline. The number of Saudi students began increasing in 2013 and within a year comprised 60 percent of Clark international students.  Walster said. International student numbers at Clark have fluctuated in the past five years because of issues such as Saudi Arabian budget cuts and U.S. immigration reform. Within three years, from Fall 2014-17, the number of Saudi students at Clark decreased from 130 to one according to enrollment data.

And this isn’t just a problem at Clark. International Student Recruitment & Outreach Manager Jody Shulnak said that during a recent South American recruitment tour, everyone from community colleges to Ivy League schools reported their numbers were down too.  “We’re not opening doors, we’re creating more barriers,” Shulnak said.  “Everything in the world affects international students.”

Shulnak travels abroad two to four times a year to showcase the school and recruit students, a constant process as students come and go. “It takes a lot to bring them in, and it seems so easy for them to leave,” She said.

Shulnak described the recruitment process between schools as cordial, but extremely competitive. She said Clark competes with universities that spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for recruiting and marketing in a $39 billion industry.  “We have advertisements in several different languages around the world,” Shulnak said.

During Fall 2017, 18 students from Vietnam represented Clark’s largest international group. International Admission Manager Nguyen Huynh recruits throughout Vietnam once or twice a year, from the capital of Hanoi to the southern cities of Ho Chi Minh, Da Nang and Hue. He said Vietnamese people are attracted to U.S. cities like Seattle and San Francisco, that a surprising number live in Minnesota, and that the United States houses almost two million Vietnamese people, more than any other country.

Huynh said that the international student downturn is due to the current administration’s policies.  “I’ve never seen the U.S. be number two,” Huynh said. “We are no longer number one in increasing enrollment numbers comparative to Canada and Australia.”

Vietnam is a successful market for international students due to a rising middle class according to Walster. She said the Vietnamese economy is good and is bolstered by Vietnamese Americans who send money home to help their families.

At Clark, international tuition is three times what domestic students pay, creating extra revenue for the international program and campus general fund according to Walster.  “This is big business, international students in the United States and all around the world, because they represent out-of-state tuition,” Walster said.  “For schools, that cash flow along with the diversity that it brings is really significant. It’s a great place to learn about a culture that’s very different from ours … Having been in this profession for around 30 years, it does go up and down depending on things happening in the world and the United States. So this is a time of challenge, but it will change. The pendulum will swing back, and hopefully soon.”


Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misquoted Beka Yosef, it has been updated to correct that error.

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