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Fewer international students have been enrolling in Iowa’s public universities for years — even before COVID-19 locked down travel and crippled the campus’ global reach — and lawmakers on Monday probed the Board of Regents for an answer to why.
International students matter to the state and its universities, as they historically have accounted for thousands of out-of-state-tuition-paying customers who diversify the campuses, enrich the experience for domestic students and stick around for graduate programs, often taking post-commencement jobs in Iowa.
Where international enrollment peaked for Iowa State University at 4,115 in 2017, for University of Iowa at 4,540 in 2015 and for University of Northern Iowa at 626 in 2014 — numbers have plummeted to this fall’s 2,533 at ISU, 1,614 at UI and 236 at UNI.
That combined 4,383 in fall 2021 represents a nearly 50 percent drop from 8,615 in 2015. And the steep slide began in 2018 — two years before the pandemic struck, according to Jason Pontius, associate chief academic officer for the regents.
“This has been driven largely by a decline in international undergraduate students,” Pontius told the Legislature’s International Relations Committee. “The graduate student numbers have stayed roughly the same during this time. In fall 2015, 60 percent of our international students were undergraduates; by fall 2021, we’re now in a place where it's flipped and now 60 percent of our international students are graduate students.”
As a massive chunk of Iowa’s international enrollment has come from China — amounting to 4,374 students in 2015, or more than half the regents’ total international enrollment that year. Big losses in Chinese students beginning in 2016 and accelerating in 2018 have propelled larger declines.
“In the last three years, we've had about a 20 percent decline each year in those students,” Pontius said. “This decline in students from China represents 70 percent of our overall international student decline.”
It’s also aggravated the campus’ larger enrollment losses, which began in 2018 and have continued annually, dropping the state’s three public universities’ combined enrollment from a high of 80,064 in fall 2016 to 69,848 in fall 2021.
“During that time we've lost about 10,000 students,” Pontius said. “Thirty-nine percent of that decline is just from the international student population alone.”
Showing lawmakers a map highlighting how much international enrollment losses or gains four-year universities in each state experienced pre-pandemic — from 2015 to 2019 — Pontius noted Iowa already had among the worst losses in the country then, with a 31 percent drop.
The only states that fared worse than Iowa were Montana at a loss of 33 percent, Kentucky at 35 percent, Missouri at 41 percent and Idaho at 55 percent. More than a dozen states actually saw international enrollment increases over that time — like California and Florida, both of which had a 17 percent increase; Alabama, up 16 percent; and Georgia, reporting a 36 percent spike.
Georgia was the only state that continued to show an increase during 2019 and 2020, when COVID-19 consumed the globe and leveled the playing field, according to Pontius.
He attributed the pre-pandemic declines — which affected more than half the states, just not to the extent it did Iowa — to a number of factors.
“Some of it is either availability of visas or the perception of the availability of visas, the perception of how welcoming certain areas may be, and then also we looked at selectivity of colleges,” Pontius said. “The most selective four-year colleges have really seen almost no decline in international students.”
By selective, Pontius said he means campuses accepting 40 percent or less of applicants.
“So as international students are going down, the more selective colleges have been able to kind of maintain their numbers,” he said. “But the trickle down in many of those cases to the less selective colleges has meant more of a decline there.”
Also playing into U.S. international enrollment losses is the uptick in research campuses globally.
“They didn't have as much research university capacity before, and they're realizing, ‘We're sending so many of our students overseas, how about we build that capacity in our own countries?’ ” Pontius said.
China is among the biggest players in the new research university market, according to Rachel Boon, regents’ chief academic officer.
“China is absolutely one of the countries that has put a lot of effort into building up their own university infrastructure,” Boon said. “They have had a lot of growth in terms of just number of institutions, and put a lot of resources into making them research-based institutions.”
Lawmakers pressed the regent representatives on why Iowa was more affected by those international factors than other states — including neighboring Nebraska and Wisconsin, both of which actually saw international enrollment increases pre-pandemic.
“Obviously they did not experience the kind of decline that we did, and I would assume the Midwest universities would have had a similar population of students from China,” Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, said. “So, for whatever reason, they weren't leaving and not coming at the same rate as they were in Iowa and Missouri.”
Mascher also asked regent representatives to elaborate on the notion international student enrollment might be down across the country due to perceptions they aren’t as welcome as before.
“You had mentioned the whole issue of perception of acceptance, and that concerns me a whole lot because obviously we heard a lot about the ‘China flu,’ and those kinds of comments were really harmful to students who were here,” she said. “Do you have data on harassment … in terms of if international students were experiencing any of that harassment and if that also played into some of the reluctance to come here or feeling accepted?”
Iowa’s university public safety departments annually report crime statistics to the board and the federal government, and the police chiefs recently presented to the Board of Regents on issues facing their respective campuses, Pontius said.
“I don’t recall them mentioning anything like that,” he said. “I can’t recall that ever being an issue in the last three to four years.”
But Mascher said she has a hard time believing that.
“The national statistics show that there was an extreme increase in harassment of Asian populations throughout the country,” she said. “So it's hard for me to believe that there wouldn't be any kind of an indication of that on our campuses as well.”
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