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Higher Ed Leaders Want To See International Enrollment Trend Reversed

Lindsey Wright

As you drive down a main strip in Terre Haute, American flags line the street as far as the eye can see. But several weeks ago dozens of other national flags took flight along side them. Around 30 flags blow in the wind as they line the front of an apartment complex.

"Saudi Arabia is there," says Michael Ellis. "We have a lot of students from Saudi Arabia living here in the building."

Terre Haute resident sends a welcoming message

Ellis co-owns the Center City Apartments building, where nearly all 33 units are rented out by international students studying at Indiana State University.  

"I felt like by flying the flags of the various nations where many of the students come from, that it was sending a message to those students that we not only want them here, but we are welcoming to them being here," Ellis says. "It’s not a matter of tolerating it, it’s a matter of wanting and welcoming them." 

Ellis says his message is in response to what he describes as unwelcoming language directed at people coming to the U.S. from other countries. It’s something state education leaders believe could be contributing to a decrease in international students studying in the U.S. 



According to an analysis of U.S. Department of Homeland Security, international enrollment dropped by about 4 percent between 2016 and 2017 nationwide. Indiana’s numbers are following a similar trend.

ISU’s international student enrollment has dropped to just over 600 students compared to more than 900 in 2015. And Indiana University’s numbers, which have been growing steadily for the last decade, are also taking a turn.

"This past year was the first year I believe since 2006 that we’ve seen a decline in international student enrollment," says IU Director of International Admissions John Wilkerson.

Indiana University student voices concern over enrollment trend

That worries IU student Adlin Iskander Zulkarnine. She's an international student and the president of the Malaysian Student Association. The number of members in the association dropped from 100 last semester to less than 50 this fall. 

"That is quite concerning for us because we still want to keep our student association going, but if we don’t receive any new students, that’s a problem," she says. 

Earlier this year, IU President Michael McRobbie issued a scathing letter, calling the trend “tremendously problematic.” He points to a number of factors, including anti-immigration sentiments. It’s something Wilkerson says international students are absorbing more through American politics. 

"I was in Rome the night of the election and was doing a presentation at an American international school the next day, and it was the first time in 14 years of doing this work that I was asked by a student if Indiana was a red state or a blue state," Wilkerson says.

Wilkerson says other factors include increased global competition, some places offering clearer paths to citizenship or residency, and safety concerns. 

"When we consider those factors alongside rising costs of higher education in the United States, there’s a leveling in terms of global influences on student migration in seeing students ask the question of return on investment," he says. 

Purdue is one university where international enrollment remains relatively stable. In fact, the institution is in the top 10 in the country for international student enrollment. 

International Programs Dean Michael Brzezinski says it’s a point of pride for the school. Although he says rhetoric probably has turned some away, he says Purdue has worked hard to embrace international students on campus. And the benefits are wide reaching. 

"There’s not a job out there now a days that doesn’t require some aspect of what I’m going to call intercultural competency," Brzezinski says. "What better way to train people for that than to have that microcosm of the world here in our campus."

Not to mention, international students in 2016 contributed a billion dollars to the state.

Construction on IU international center to start next Spring

Although Wilkerson says a number of factors are to fault for the changes in enrollment, IU refuses to take the wait and see approach.

The IU Board of Trustees recently approved a new $17.5 million international center that will be located in the heart of campus. Wilkerson says it will enhance the university’s commitment to international learning.

"Being proatively engaging with students, making sure we are sharing with them the messages within the community, doing that in a way that is candid, accurate and consistent," he says. 

And Ellis says he simply hopes to start a conversation in his community. He’s encouraging residents to reach out if they want to see their flag flying on his building, even if it means wrapping the entire complex.

"I don’t care where they’re from. I don’t care if they’re black or brown or white or red or yellow," Ellis says. "Everyone should be welcome in this country, and I can assure you, from my perspective, they are."