Universities strive for international enrollment growth

LANSING – A student in Nepal is applying to schools across the U.S. for a program in biotechnology but struggling to find the right school which offers his concentration – until he receives an email.

Prasanna Maharjan, a second-year student studying biotechnology at Ferris State University, was contacted by an international recruiter detailing the program he was searching for.

“At the time it felt like it was perfect for some reason, the way he emailed me,” Maharjan said. “It had a warm sensation I would say. It felt tailored towards me and I just went with it. I haven’t looked back since then.”

More students like Maharjan have been coming to study in the U.S. since travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic eased.

A 2023 report by OpenDoors showed a 14% total increase from 2022 in newly enrolled international students nationwide, totaling 298,523 students.

That report cited the University of Michigan as a leading host institution nationally with 10,411 international students.

Other universities across the state have also experienced an uptick.

Rosemary Max, the executive director of the Office of Global Engagement at Oakland University, said students from 65 countries attended the school during the pandemic. That rose to 77 countries in the 2023-24 academic year.

Max said, as of fall 2023 Oakland had 768 international students, slightly up from the previous year. That’s still lower than pre-pandemic, however. For example, fall 2019 enrollment was around 911.

“The main difference in those numbers is primarily Chinese students,” Max said.

The C pandemic in China lasted a bit longer than in the United States, which resulted in fewer students traveling from there, Max explained.

“We’re hoping to see a little bit more of an increase this coming fall,” Max said.

Oakland is trying to increase enrollment and target other parts of the globe as well, Max said.

One way is to foster partnerships with universities in other countries to allow their students to complete degrees at Oakland.

Max said that Oakland recently signed such agreements with universities in Mexico, India and China.

“Those agreements, we’re hoping will bring students to Oakland in the fall and continue on for several years,” Max said.

Additionally, Max said that Oakland’s School of Business is working with a third-party company to recruit for its master’s programs.

One barrier that Oakland helps students overcome is visa denials.

“Although the State Department lists numbers that say student visa approvals are up, we still find that it’s a problem in certain parts of the world, especially with students from Africa,” Max said.

Max said the university helps prepare visa applicants for their interviews. If an applicant is rejected, it looks for evidence and material to bring to a second interview.

“The decision to grant a student visa for coming to the United States is entirely the prerogative of the Department of State,” Max said. “We’ve advocated on behalf of students. We have talked to officials on behalf of students.”

“It’s an ongoing issue, and I think probably every international office in the United States would tell you that,” she said.

Maharjan said when he applied for a visa in 2022, he waited two months for an interview but didn’t have much trouble afterwards.

Ferris State is also seeing a gradual increase in international student enrollment, similar to other universities in the state.

Tara Braun, the university’s executive director of international education and chair of the Study Michigan coalition focused on international student recruitment, said Ferris is making major recruitment strategy changes.

Those strategies consist of analyzing markets, or countries, that Ferris should engage with and examining how well its academic programs pair with demands of other countries, Braun said.

For example, she said one staff member is in Brazil to work with markets there.

“Brazil is an up-and-coming international student market,” Braun said. “It’s very strategic that we go there and try to grow that market.”

“You’re going to start to see a lot of growth coming from the Asian market for us, and then also portions of South America to Mexico,” Braun said. “We’re going to be putting a lot of initiative in Mexico.”

Braun also follows the number of college age students who will be searching for schools in the coming years.

In addition, Braun follows the likelihood of getting visas and whether they can provide sufficient supporting material like financial documents to obtain that visa. English proficiency is another important factor.

Pedro Saltini, a Brazilian at Ferris State studying finance and economics, discovered the university through a website search.

The school’s international education office made the process for applying for a visa easy for Saltini.

“I knew what documents I should have, what expectations to have, how much I would get charged over the four years, what type of financial preparation I would have,” Saltini said. “I was really prepared for the process.

Why are international students so important to college campuses?

Braun said they provide diversity and a different worldview and perspective.

“They can enrich the classroom because they add those different perspectives,” she said.

Also, international students contribute to the Michigan economy.

The National Association for Foreign Student Affairs reported that the 33,501 international students enrolled in the state contributed $1.3 billion to the economy in the 2022-23 academic year.

Saltini emphasizes the importance to him of studying internationally.

“It’s getting out of your home country, getting a sense of freedom and getting the opportunity to experience yourself,” he said.


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