Washburn University President Jerry Farley spent less than two days in Nepal last year — more time in the air than on the ground — to recruit students from the south Asian country.

He returned home exhausted but with a commitment from 37 students to attend Washburn in the fall 2018 semester.

"That was good. We had residence halls for them here. We had them enrolled in classes," he said. "They had filled out all of the immigration forms. They went in for their final one-on-one, face-to-face visit with the (U.S.) embassy. It’s just perfunctory. You walk in and they talk to you for about five minutes and then they move you on. They stopped 17 of our students — wouldn’t let them in the country."

The loss of 17 students who pay the more expensive out-of-state tuition rate and live on campus isn't a small one at a time when Kansas universities are battling declining enrollment and decreased state funding.

The number of international students enrolled in Kansas Board of Regents schools and Washburn University dropped 11.29 percent since 2015, a decline of 1,560 students, according to Kansas Higher Education Statistics. The decrease hits already financially strapped universities in the pocketbook, but also affects the cultural diversity experience on campuses, school leaders say.

 

Lost revenue

International students contribute about $39 billion to the U.S. economy and make up about 5.5 percent of enrollment nationally, said Rachel Banks, director for public policy of NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

A NAFSA database shows international students have a $260.2 million economic impact on Kansas and support about 2,500 jobs. But that data, based on 9,500 international students, likely is an understatement. KBOR numbers reported for the 2017-2018 academic year show 12,251 international students enrolled at Kansas Board of Regents state universities and Washburn.

The economic impact of losing international students is felt by universities and communities.

"It's tremendous," said Charles Taber, provost and executive vice president at Kansas State University, which has lost about 600 international students in recent years. "These are 600 fewer students paying out-of-state tuition coming to our university. That's millions of dollars of revenue loss. It's a very direct financial impact."

Carol Solko-Olliff, director of international student services at Fort Hays State University, said international students spend money locally, too.

"When they come, they bring two bags," she said. "They are buying everything else they need. It's a huge economic impact."

Multiple factors are impacting the ability and willingness of international students to seek education in the U.S.

 

'Unwelcoming'

Some report, like Washburn, that it has become tougher in the past two years to get visas. Allison Garrett, president of Emporia State University, said it saw a "fairly significant" increase in visa denials, numbering about 40 in the past two semesters. Solko-Olliff said Fort Hays State had experienced the same issues, as did a Wichita State representative. A Pittsburg State University spokesman said he hadn't seen a change.

The global political landscape has had a general impact.

Banks noted that the travel ban put in place in 2017, which since has been revised, caused upheaval at the time.

"I think it's the unwelcoming message and uncertainty for students to come here," she said, adding that the travel ban was rolled out without warning and people were pulled off planes because of it.

Chuck Olcese, director of international support services at the University of Kansas, said recruiters get a lot of questions about the political situation.

"One is just not really wanting to go to the U.S. because of what they read in the news and the other is how that would affect their ability to get a visa," he said. "The travel bans that came out right after the Trump presidency took effect and children being separated from parents at the borders, these all make international news in big ways and just kind of underscores an unwelcome feeling."

Kansas has an additional challenge, Olcese said.

"Guns on campus and that, connected to the shooting of the two engineers in Overland Park a couple of years ago — in India, that was all over the papers," he said, referring to a hate crime in which two Indian engineers were killed.

"That's a real question for people who are coming from cultures where guns aren't even present," Olcese said. "They feel like everybody here has a gun and is going to be sitting in class with a gun."

Farley said trade challenges with China have changed the reception he and recruiters get in that country.

He has been going to China for several years now, staying in dormitories and visiting with people at different universities, Farley said.

"We were up to over 100 Chinese students here," he said. "Maybe 125 or so, until the election and beginning in '16 a little bit but in '17, a dramatic difference, schools were cool to us. They were still friendly. They still wanted to send some students to us, but not nearly the enthusiasm about it at all."

Farley said that in China, trade problems are relayed through a party secretary, and on every campus, a local party secretary makes sure schools are teaching "the things they ought."

The number of Chinese students studying at Washburn is down by 60 to 70 students, he said.

 

Increased competition

Also significant in the decreasing numbers of international students coming to Kansas is that more countries are actively competing for those students, several university leaders said.

"It's become much more competitive globally with many universities in Canada, Australia and Europe picking up the slack and really competing hard to attract international students that used to see the U.S. as the primary destination for higher ed," said K-State's Taber.

Many countries that used to subsidize their students to study in the U.S. have stopped those programs, he added, pointing especially to China and Brazil.

In addition, Taber said, China and South Korea have invested in their own educational infrastructures and more students who used to study abroad are staying home.

"International students would much rather go to Canada, Australia or even places like China where there is a message being sent by those countries of 'we want you, we want you to succeed here, we even want you to stay on and get some practical training experience after it's done,' " said NAFSA's Banks.

Canada and Australia, she said, even offer a pathway to citizenship for international students.

"We cannot and do not have a way to be able to offer that certainty to international students," Banks said. "That's definitely a variable that's weighing heavily."

 

A future here?

In December, there were 7.3 million job openings in the U.S. The availability of workforce has become a key component in economic development and is threatening to slow growth in numerous industries. At a recent conference in Virginia, the National Association of Landscape Professionals called it a labor crisis and Total Landscape Care reported that industry had 71,000 unfilled jobs in 2017.

One component of addressing workforce needs could be international students, Banks said.

"There are Democrats and Republicans who believe we do need to be accessible and attractive to international talent," she said. "Already some bills have been introduced in this (U.S.) Congress that are targeted at fixes to make us recognize the value of that."

But international students are embroiled in the larger immigration debate, Banks said. Comprehensive immigration reform is necessary.

"We're still operating in circa 1952 immigration laws and regulations," she said. "We really are flat footed compared to our competitors in the world. We are welcoming a common-sense immigration policy."

KU's Olcese said the bigger issue of immigration goes far beyond a border wall.

"It's how do we accept the other. How do we welcome and interact and learn from people who are different from ourselves," he said.

ESU's Garrett said attracting students to study in Kansas can lead to workforce development.

"If you attract students here to universities in Kansas, there’s a decent shot at them staying within Kansas," she said. "I look at Emporia State and our student population, and what we know is that 84 percent of our graduates are actually staying within the area and adding to the economic prosperity of this area."

 

Cultural diversity

While economics underpin a lot of conversations about the decrease in international students, for those committed to education, there is a more important issue. 

"The money is one factor, but the more guiding factor is the ability to make an international environment for students from Kansas or wherever they're coming from across the U.S.," KU's Olcese said.

That is a critical part of the university educational experience, Farley said.

"It gives our students the opportunity to have an international experience without having to travel the world," he said. "We will have students that come to us — we recruit from a lot of little small towns — they never met anyone from China or from Japan or from Nepal. They get the opportunity to have classes together. They eat together. We put them right in the residence halls and assign them Kansas roommates.

"They get to know them, and it's both ways, because the students that come to us from abroad get to know our students."

Olcese said that 70 percent of KU's students may not have met someone from another country or had any kind of serious interaction with another culture.

"To be able to come to KU and do that in a very personal way is just very important," he said. "Particularly in the Midwest, where we're kind of isolated here. That's going to prepare students for a future in a world that is getting smaller and smaller every day."

It is difficult, Olcese said, to think of any profession that isn't affected by what is happening internationally.

"If you've done your whole education in a very isolated environment without interacting with someone who thinks different culturally than you, you're really at a disadvantage," he said.