International student enrollment has been an important element of campus internationalization at community colleges for many years. For most U.S. students at community colleges who are unable to travel and study abroad, international students on campus and in classrooms may be their only opportunity to gain a real-world appreciation for other languages and cultures and to forge friendships and collaborations that can possibly expand their notions of community. It may also be their best opportunity to gain some level of “the international experience” that can help them develop the kind of skills — intercultural communication, tolerance and appreciation of other cultures and traditions, etc. — that can increase their success as workers in a global marketplace and citizens in an increasingly interconnected world.
In addition to a real-world presence of diverse languages and cultures, international students can bring substantial revenue to community colleges and their surrounding communities. For the last several years, the annual economic impact to the nation of international students at community colleges has been calculated to be in the billions of dollars. Because of the dual benefit that international students can bring, community college leaders as well as federal officials have for many years sought to increase the number and capacity of community colleges to enroll more international students and at more locations across the nation. Some have advocated for additional resources to help colleges increase their existing international student enrollment to at least 50 students.
Clustered in a few states
At last count, slightly more than 700 of the nation’s more than 1,000 community colleges were authorized to enroll international students. During the 2016-2017 academic year, the number of international students at community colleges reached an all-time high of 96,472, according to IIE Open Doors data. For that year, as was the case in previous years, most of those international students (73,149, or more than 75%) choose to study at a relatively small number of community colleges in seven states — Texas, California, Florida, Washington, New York, Virginia and Maryland.
Highlighting the disparity between institutions within the sector, data indicate that in 2016-2017 more than 10% (nearly 10,000 international students) studied at just three community colleges in Texas. By comparison, only two international students studied in the entire state of Alaska, as was also the case in New Hampshire. Looking at statistics by state, more than one in every four (28,921) chose to study in California that year, which had the largest number of community colleges enrolling international students and, as a result, the most international students at community colleges than any other state.
The difference in enrollment numbers between institutions also translates into a disparate economic impact across the United States. According to NAFSA’s International Student Value Tool data, during the subsequent academic year (2017-2018) the economic impact of international students at community colleges in only seven of the top receiving states was more than $2 billion and nearly 12,000 jobs created or supported. Not surprisingly, the economic impact to the economy in California was the largest, at nearly $900 million and more than 5,000 U.S. jobs created or supported. Comparatively, in Alaska the economic impact was relatively small at $50,000.
A downward trend
Over the past several years, the number of international students at community colleges has steadily declined — decreasing -2% in 2017-2018, -8.3% in 2018-2019 and another -8.3% in 2019-2020. Some attribute the decline — a sharp reversal in international enrollment trends — to changes in U.S. immigration laws, reduced visa availability in historically strong international student recruitment markets, unwelcoming or conflicting messaging from high-level U.S. government officials, and/or increased competition from other countries.
In response, community colleges increased their international student recruitment efforts and sought to reassure prospective students and their parents that the U.S. is a welcoming and safe place to study. According to IIE Open Doors Report data, however, by the 2019-2020 academic year, international enrollment at community colleges sunk to its lowest level in more than 17 years — to 79,187, a decline of more than 17,000 students or nearly -18%.
Similar to the years of high international enrollment, the record decline was not equally felt across the sector. While the top seven states for international students at community colleges had the largest declines in the total number of international students — for example, a decline of more than 6,000 in California — 12 states had small increases. For instance, during the same period, North Carolina had an increase of more than 300 international students. New Hampshire more than quadrupled the number of international students at its community colleges, from two to 16.
The economic impact from international students in those 12 states increased nearly 50% to more than $182 million and created or supported nearly 60% (or 349) more U.S. jobs. However, as indicated above, the sector experienced an overall decline in international enrollments that translated into a loss of at least $400 million and 3,041 U.S. jobs.
This decreasing trend and record decline in international student enrollments leading up to the 2020-2021 academic year is especially troubling as community colleges begin to emerge from the effects of the global pandemic, which also include a significant decline in domestic student enrollment and a tightening of already tight institutional budgets. The entire sector eagerly awaits publication of the 2021 IIE Open Doors report to obtain a more thorough assessment of the effects of the global pandemic on international student enrollment.
During the recent Community Colleges for International Development (CCID) virtual annual conference, several attendees stated that international student enrollment at their institutions had been severely impacted by the global pandemic. Many said that they are currently focused on maintaining virtual contact with current and prospective international students during the pandemic and while their campuses are closed. Most were hopeful that their college’s international student numbers would quickly rebound during the post-pandemic recovery and once again start to trend upwards.
As community colleges continue to make plans for the post-pandemic, education advocates have renewed their calls for a coordinated national strategy for international student recruitment in order to help U.S. institutions rebound and more aggressively compete with those in other countries during the post-pandemic recovery. Some advocates have called for changes to U.S. immigration laws, more in line with the laws of other nations — to allow highly skilled international students to stay, live, and work in the United States after graduation — in order to make the U.S. a more attractive study destination.
Many are hoping that more U.S. community colleges in more locations across the nation will enroll a greater number of international students and that newly created resources will help them expand their capacity to do so. Already, the U.S. Department of State has begun new initiatives, including a new global marketing campaign to promote U.S. higher education, and is creating a centralized platform for U.S. institutions to participate in overseas recruitment fairs.
Many community college representatives that I spoke with at the CCID annual conference welcomed a coordinated national strategy and new State Department initiatives to promote U.S. higher education. But many believed that a new positive and welcoming message from U.S. government officials would have the biggest impact on prospective international students.