Is the International Enrollment Boom a Rising Tide that Lifts All Ships?

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Series: Changing How We Understand the Market

In this new series by Jon Boeckenstedt, we analyze current enrollment and demographics data, uncovering stories that challenge how institutions often understand their marketplace—or that shed new light on emerging trends. We want to encourage a deeper look at the implications of today’s marketplace data. We hope that you will share these stories across your institution and use them to start critical conversations to drive not only enrollment strategy but discussions of curricular offerings, student support, and course design. While we’ll highlight findings and stories worthy of closer attention, each article includes an easy-to-use Tableau dashboard that you and your colleagues can use to drill deep in the data yourself.

Jon Boeckenstedt (DePaul University)

It may be time to challenge some assumptions about the international enrollment boom.

Sit in on any discussion about enrollment in America’s colleges and universities, and it won’t be long until someone brings up international enrollment. The US continues to be a strong attractor of talent worldwide, despite our own struggles domestically; and perhaps our biggest export—American culture—can be seen as a leading cause of the boom in international enrollment. Of course, a big part of American culture revolves around the economic power of our nation, and the US is still viewed by students in other countries as the home of tremendous educational variety and opportunity, and still a gateway to economic success.  Couple this with an increased willingness of China to allow students to study in the US, and numbers were bound to increase.

But perhaps the biggest driver of these increases is our own interest in international student markets. Enrollment of domestic students has fallen after a long, continuous spiral upward since WWII, and population counts and projections do not show a strong rebound on the horizon.  As the world continues to shrink, most campuses have had epiphanies about how important broader cultural and international context is for graduates who claim to be ready for the world that awaits them; international students can help diversify our institutions and expand student the perspectives and experiences which will be critical to a more global economy.

And finally, against a very slow economic recovery from the recession in that began in 2007, and the resultant explosion in institutional financial aid budgets, international students present a diversified (if less stable) revenue stream to keep institutions financially viable.  Even before 2007, though, colleges saw demographic futures that were not rosy, and began ramping up international recruitment.

But is the picture of international enrollment as rosy as it appears?

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