By Peter Cunningham

It seems the prestige of a US university education might be being trumped by the fear factor for many international students and colleges must move to counter this perception.

At a time when the need for American higher education institutions to ramp up student recruitment abroad is clear, the number of new foreign undergraduates enrolling has dropped, according to the latest Open Doors IIE figures.

A lot of that could be to do with the prevailing political wind in the States. And Donald Trump’s moves towards a trade war with Beijing could make the situation worse – after all, China supplies more of the US’s student migrants than any other country.

That’s why it’s more important than ever for US colleges use their recruitment marketing to reach out to the international community and make would-be students feel that they will be safe and well looked after.

The past 18 months have changed many people’s perceptions about the United States and it’s understandable that foreign students may be worried about how they will be received. An adjustment in student recruitment strategies may be warranted.

I’ve been a regular traveller to the States for many years, working with major clients over there on long-term education marketing projects. It’s a magnificent country filled with enthusiastic, friendly and inspiring people. But even flying in from London – not the Middle East or Mexico – I’ve seen the borders get much harder. The welcome seemed a lot tougher and a lot ruder on my most recent trip.

Put yourself in their shoes

So put yourself in the shoes of a student thinking about four years’ study at a US university. They’ll be worried about getting a visa, worried about getting through customs and worried about not being made to feel welcome.

They’ll be worried about the rise of identitarian nationalism and the alt.right – for many of their faces just don’t fit with that particular way of thinking.

And although there have always been guns, the profile of US school shootings has rocketed in recent months. Talk of arming teachers will not fill many a would-be freshman with confidence about their safety.

Now, last year’s three per cent dip in enrolments could be a blip, granted. But this drop of 10,000 students is the first in the 12 years Open Doors has been collating the US figures.

It’s also the first time a divisive president with an obsession about cutting immigration has been in the White House in those 12 years. The two facts could be unrelated, but think about global sentiment towards that immigration stance, think about how building a wall between your country and your neighbour could fuel misconceptions.

Consistent downward trend

The worrying thing for the American economy – and not just its educational economy – is that if a consistent downward trend in international students were to emerge, the country would take a hit.

Over the decades, many of the students who went to the States for an education stayed in the States. They used what they had learned to get good jobs and pay higher taxes, or buckled down and built businesses for themselves that employed more Americans.

One of the opportunities that America takes great pride in is that anyone can arrive there with nothing but their wits and achieve greatness if they put in the work. That is what’s at threat if universities cannot continue to attract the smartest of the world’s young minds to its shores.

What the universities need to do is have more of an outreach to the international market. They need to show people that the US is welcoming and that it is a great place to get an education.

It is an important time for higher education to really reach out. The foreign enrolment figures have got worse, but without positive reinforcement action, they will fall further.

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