U.S. universities and colleges shouldn’t take it for granted that there will be a steady influx of international students into the country, said panelists at a national conference for the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) earlier this month.

The political storms brewing in the U.S., from elections to gun laws, has gotten some international students thinking twice about pursuing their studies there, among other reasons.

A recent informal survey of U.S. high school counselors and university admissions officers based overseas or serving non-Americans revealed that 64 percent of them reported an increase in the number of foreign students who are now considering alternatives to the U.S., when previously, they would have traditionally been bound for U.S. institutions.

Of the 214 educational counselors and university representatives who took part in the survey, 39 percent of respondents said that the result of the U.S. presidential election in November would have a significant impact on their students’ willingness to attend a university in the United States.

The results of the survey were shown to participants of the NACAC annual conference, and to further illustrate the point, Meghan McHale Dangremond, associate director of admissions at Tufts University, put together a cloud graphic depicting an elephant made up of the words most commonly used in the written responses.

Among the most common were “Donald Trump”, “Muslim”, “cost”, “visa”, and “safety”.

Image via Inside Higher Ed.

“These are the conversations that they’re having on the ground. Our election process is on the mouths of 17-year-olds around the world,” said Dangremond, as quoted by Inside Higher Ed.

Referring to Republican candidate Donald Trump as “the elephant in the room”, she said: “Some of the concerns that we heard expressed basically told us that even if this election doesn’t go for the elephant in the room, the damage is done.”

The admissions process and economic slowdowns in emerging markets are other major factors that are deterring students, as studying abroad requires a great deal of time and financial commitment.

Student perceptions that applying to U.S. institutions is too difficult compared to other study destinations, as well as cuts in scholarships to study overseas, are hurting U.S. institutions’ ability to recruit international students, said panelists.

Besides that, improvements in higher education systems and individual institutions outside the U.S. have led to more competition, with other countries such as New Zealand and Canada seeing a rise in international student enrolments thanks to their visa and immigration policies, which are more open compared to the U.S.

Kristin Dreazen, an educational consultant based in London, commented that Canada in particular was “immigration-friendly”, which is a huge draw for international students: “It is very immigration-friendly to international students, so students who are on a student visa have a very clearly defined path to permanent residency, and the opportunity to work for a significant amount of time after they’ve graduated.”

While China is currently one of the largest international student markets for the U.S., with around 304,000 Chinese students enrolled at U.S. universities last year, panelists warned that the surge of Chinese students might not continue for long, especially with the growth of regional institutions that offer top-quality education and are closer to home.

Johanna Fishbein, university advisor at the United World College of South East Asia, an international school in Singapore, said: “There is this perception that the Chinese economy is growing and that there is going to be plenty of money left for Chinese students, but actually, some people say that no, it’s really neither a boom nor a bust, it’s just very stagnant.”

“Is it a market that we can see growing? Not necessarily. We certainly can’t rely on that happening,” she added.

In order to be able to withstand changes in the higher education sector and continue attracting foreign applicants, the panelists recommended that universities should look beyond their usual international student markets, consider emerging learning models, review entry requirements, and streamline their application processes.

Image via Flickr

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