Universities suffer as international student enrollment declines; KU in better position than most, chancellor says

A bus whirs by as University of Kansas students wait along Jayhawk Boulevard on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016.

Like its peers across the country, the University of Kansas is seeing a decline in international enrollment — “but not terribly so, thankfully,” Chancellor Douglas Girod said Monday.

After about a decade of growth, universities nationwide began reporting dwindling numbers of international students in fall 2016, a trend exacerbated, some college administrators have argued, by President Donald Trump’s divisive rhetoric and restrictive immigration and travel policies.

A recent report by the Institute of International Education revealed universities have seen an average decrease of about 7 percent from fall 2016 to fall 2017. At KU, that number is closer to 5 percent, according to a report from its Office of Institutional Research and Planning.

“From an international perspective, I think the political environment has been challenging for some,” Girod said, referring to the vulgar language Trump allegedly used last week in describing Haiti and African countries. “But there’s a lot coming together to create a storm around enrollment.”

Although some states around the country are also experiencing a decline in domestic students, partly caused by a birthrate decline 20 years ago, KU’s enrollment has steadily grown over the last four years, according to data released last fall by the Kansas Board of Regents.

University of Kansas Chancellor Doug Girod attends a Kansas Board of Regents meeting, Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017, in Wichita.

Girod also pointed to an expected surge in enrollment within the next seven years: According to the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education, the high school class of 2025 is projected to be the largest and most ethnically diverse class ever seen in the U.S., creating a college admissions peak.

Fortunately, Girod said, KU hasn’t experienced the overall decline in enrollment suffered by some of its peers, where the loss of hundreds or even thousands of international students has led to “devastating” budget cuts.

KU’s neighbor to the west, Kansas State University, hasn’t been so lucky. Officials at K-State last fall reported an overall enrollment decrease of nearly 1,000 students, including a loss of 159 international students. Later that fall, K-State leaders announced a plan to slash the university’s budget by about $12 million to compensate for the overall enrollment decline.

So far, KU leaders have yet to announce any similar shortfalls caused by falling international enrollment. But KU, along with many universities across the country, does rely at least partly on the revenue generated by international students, who usually pay more than in-state residents.

In a Central District redevelopment plan published two years ago, the university outlined a funding strategy largely dependent on revenue from its International Academic Accelerator Program. That program, which launched in fall 2014, aims to increase the number of international students enrolled at KU, in turn increasing the tuition revenue deriving from those students.

The university in early 2016 said it would depend on AAP revenue to fund about $6.4 million of the $21.8 million annual sublease payment required to complete the Central District redevelopment project, a goal that Girod said KU has since met.

Still, Girod said he understands why some universities have seen fewer international students enrolled over the last year, as news of Trump’s restrictive travel ban and immigration policies have created concern overseas that the United States may not be as friendly to foreign students as it once was.

“It’s really just the sense of whether you feel welcome or not,” Girod said.

KU will continue working with outside recruiters to attract international students, he added, as well as bolstering in-house recruiting efforts. China and Middle Eastern nations (i.e., “countries that have the ability and the populations looking to go overseas,” Girod said) have historically been at the top of KU’s recruiting lists, and Girod said the university is working to strengthen those relationships.

For example, he said, plans are underway to bring a group of Chinese university professors to KU through the university’s School of Education sometime later this year. Although a similar partnership already exists between the KU Medical Center and the Chinese Ministry of Health, Girod said such exchanges with Chinese education leaders are usually reserved for Harvard, MIT and other elite coastal schools.

Even with a fairly stable international enrollment rate, KU isn’t about to rest on its laurels, Girod added.

“We feel fortunate in that regard,” he said. “But we certainly feel confident that doing nothing is not the answer.”