Higher ed fears political climate could be costly

A University of Colorado Board of Regents member says he is concerned that the “tenor and tone” of the Trump campaign and the spate of violence and harassment directed toward minorities nationwide since the presidential election may lead to a drop in enrollment of international students.

A significant drop would mean a costly financial hit to the state’s universities, several of which rely upon international students — or, more precisely, the full tuition they pay.

“I am concerned that many of our international students may not feel they are welcome to study here in Colorado,” CU Regent Michael Carrigan told The Colorado Independent. He’s concerned not only for their well-being, but for the impact on the university, both financial and for reasons of diversity, should they decide to go elsewhere. “As a university community, we intend to remain inclusive and welcoming” of all students from all backgrounds, he said.

Carrigan pointed out that Colorado has among the lowest public funding for higher education in the country, and that makes colleges and universities like CU “reliant on populations that pay a premium and subsidize [the education] of Colorado residents. One of the best populations is international students.”

At CU Boulder, international student enrollment more than doubled between 2009 and 2016, from 1,248 to 3,079. Of those more than 3,000 students, two-thirds are from Asia, mostly from China. Another 492 are from countries in the Middle East, mostly from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

In the past year, CU’s international admissions counselors recruited students in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. Natalie Mikulak, associate director for admissions at CU Boulder, told The Independent that there hasn’t been a drop in applications from students from the Middle East. She noted that those students choose CU because of the community, high quality of life and the highly ranked academic programs.

In 2016-17, tuition revenue at CU Boulder from non-resident students, including international students, is projected at $399 million, about one-quarter of the $1.584 billion in annual revenue expected for the campus. Resident student tuition revenue is estimated at $208 million. Tuition and fees will bring in roughly half of the revenue for CU Boulder in 2016-17.

The potential for a drop in international student tuition revenue has become a sufficiently big concern that it became part of the discussion at a recent meeting of the CU Board of Regents.

Carrigan told The Independent that a recent budget presentation outlined risks to CU’s finances, including the potential for a drop in tuition dollars from international students. The presentation didn’t offer an explanation of why that drop might happen, Carrigan said.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, state funding for Colorado’s public colleges and universities still hasn’t caught up to 2008 levels. In 2014-15, Colorado ranked 48th out of 50 states for funding for public higher education. And Colorado is dead last among its six border states in public support for higher education.

According to the Colorado Department of Higher Education, in 2015, the last year for which enrollment numbers are available, almost 40,000 students who attended public and private colleges and universities in Colorado weren’t state residents. And that includes almost 10,000 students from about 90 foreign countries.

Muntadher Alzayer of Saudi Arabia is a junior at CU Boulder, majoring in computer science. He’s active with Project Nur, a national student initiative sponsored by the American Islamic Congress that promotes acceptance and mutual respect between Muslims and other communities. The project aims to help Islamic students who are afraid they will be targeted for harassment for their faith. “There’s much international students can do to help” each other, Alzayer said.

But for many international students, 2016 marked the first election cycle they’ve seen in person in the United States, and the rhetoric has been “scary,” Alzayer said. “It’s tough” on the students here as it affects them and their families back home. And he said that atmosphere is causing some prospective students to weigh their options for education in the United States. Alzayer said other countries like the United Kingdom may be safer options as well as being closer to home.

The United States has a strong and well-ranked education system, he added, but as he starts looking at graduate schools, the political climate and election results “is putting doubts in my mind about staying in the United States.”

Irene Griego, who chairs the CU Board of Regents, told The Independent that she believes it may be premature to worry about declines in international student enrollment. “We value our international students,” she said. “They bring great diversity to our campus,” and said that’s a value shared all around the university. “My hope is that we will be able to maintain that great relationship and that our students continue to feel valued.”

Griego said she has been talking with students, including those from foreign countries, and most want to know if there will be changes and how it will impact them. “Our universities will do a good job of keeping them informed,” Griego said. “This is a time when students are nervous and a little afraid, but we need to be patient and wait to see what happens.”

“It’s important for them to know they are valued that they feel safe,” she said. “We need to make sure they hear that from us and that we will work toward a safe campus.”

Just how lucrative is international student tuition?

At the undergraduate level, tuition for foreign students at CU Boulder varies depending on the academic program, but the range for 2016-17 is from $17,474 per semester for liberal arts and education to $19,022 per semester for business. That doesn’t include fees or on-campus room and board, which can easily add another $10,000 per semester. That’s a minimum of almost $45,000 per year; the University estimates cost of attendance at around $51,000 per year, which includes transportation and other necessities.

Compare that to what an undergraduate Colorado resident will pay for tuition per semester: a maximum of $4,884 for up to 18 credit hours per semester for liberal arts and education; and up to $8,646 for up to 18 hours per semester for business. Fees and room and board are roughly the same as they are for nonresident students.

The politically-motivated attacks against racial minorities and Muslims come at a time when international student enrollment is already struggling. Prior to the election, there were already signs that international students were reconsidering American education. The downturn in the oil industry hit countries in the Middle East hard. At CU Denver, the collapse of the Brazilian economy in 2015 also made difficult or impossible for some of those students to come back to the Colorado to continue their education, according to Carrigan.

The Southern Poverty Law Center reported that nationwide, there were more than 800 incidents of intimidation and harassment of blacks, Muslims, LGBT, Hispanic and women in the ten days following the Nov. 8 election. The SPLC reported 21 incidents took place in Colorado.

However, included in those 21 incidents is an attack on the Denver Trump office just before the election. In addition, this week, a Muslim student at Ohio State University went on a knife attack, injuring 11. The man, a Somali immigrant, claimed he was striking back against the attacks on Muslims and in support of ISIS. Campus police shot and killed the man.

Schools, including college campuses, were the most frequent locations for harassment or other violence, according to the SPLC.

And the recent uptick in attacks on students has some Middle Eastern countries worrying, too.

Several countries, including the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, have issued travel warnings to their citizens coming to the United States, warning them of anti-Muslim violence and pointing to Trump’s plans to bar Muslims from coming to the United States. The UAE warning urged its college students to be particularly careful.

Colorado State University has the second-highest number of international students in Colorado, with about 2,000. Spokesman Mike Hooker told The Independent in an email that international student numbers remain strong, and that the university has not seen an impact from “recent questions about possible changes in policies” related to international students. “However, there is clearly a degree of concern and uncertainty at institutions across the country looking at if and how the current cultural climate and potential policy changes will impact the number of international students who chose to study in the United States. It’s an issue we’ll continue to monitor.”

The Colorado Department of Higher Education is also monitoring the situation. StudyColorado, which works with 35 public and private colleges and universities in Colorado, promotes the state’s higher education opportunities overseas.

Megan McDermott, a spokesperson for the department, said in an email that staff is following media stories about “potential opportunities and challenges that a new federal administration may present to international education. We know the rhetoric of the election has raised concerns among current international students around the country, as well as potential international students who now may be reconsidering their interest in studying in the United States.”

She noted that the state’s colleges and universities support their international students and says that the campuses will remain safe and welcoming places.


Photo credit: Ken Lund, via Creative Commons License, Flickr