What’s the real story on international student applications?

“Survey Finds College Applications from International Students Down,” cries the U.S. News and World Report headline from March 13. “Amid Trump Effect Fear, 40% of Colleges See Dip in Foreign Applicants,” reports the New York Times on March 16. “Will International Students Stay Away?” asks Inside Higher Ed on March 13, reporting a “nearly 40% decline” in international applications.

What’s the story here? The actual percentage reporting declines was 38% or 39% (depending on whether you read the original AACRO preliminary report or one of the news stories), not 40%. This is three or four percentage points higher than institutions reporting increases in international applications, not a whole lot. And the rest – 27% – reported no change. Which means that 62% of institutions are reporting the same or higher applications.

While most stories touch briefly on some of the institutions experiencing increases, the slant to all the stories is negative. Far from simply reporting anxiety about future enrollments, they appear to be creating it. Is there a real basis for anxiety here? Consider:

  1. We haven’t yet learned (though a full report is expected) which institutions took part, how they were selected (or if they self-selected) or if they are representative of U.S. institutions as a whole. It is possible that institutions experiencing declines disproportionately responded to the survey.
  2. Only 250 institutions responded to the survey, a small sample of the thousands of institutions accepting international students. Without more information, it is too early to conclude that “nearly 40% of U.S. colleges are seeing declines.”
  3. We are not given any information about how these results compare to previous years, or whether the survey was conducted in previous years. Is this year better or worse than before? The only clues we get from the stories are anecdotal and speculative.
  4. No information has been given about the margin of error – which could even out the institutions reporting increases and decreases.
  5. No actual numbers are given, meaning we don’t have any real idea of the extent of the increases and decreases reported.

None of this is meant to diminish the anxiety that some institutions are clearly experiencing over enrollment declines. It is also not a criticism of the original study. But stories like this, especially those with a negative and alarmist slant, can quickly take on the status of orthodoxy and shape the conversation over the entire higher education landscape. They need to be read and interpreted with caution.

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