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As international enrollment declines nationwide, UT-Dallas looks for ways to halt the slide

International student enrollment is declining at universities nationwide. At the University of Texas at Dallas, that's a particular concern.

The Parade of Flags at the 2017 UT-Dallas Homecoming Parade.

To get a sense of the importance of international students to the University of Texas at Dallas, you only need to look at the annual Homecoming Parade.

One of the main attractions of the fall tradition, which includes a performance by the pep band, cheers from the cheerleaders and floats made by fraternities, is the Parade of Flags, where dozens of students from countries such as Egypt, Mexico, China and Iran march through campus waving the flags of their homelands.

But this year, there were fewer students available to join the march. After years of growth, international student applications to UT-Dallas dropped by about 6 percent in 2017, school officials said. 

It's part of a nationwide trend — a recent report by the Institute for International Education said international student enrollment is down 7 percent nationwide this fall — but for a school like UT-Dallas, the decline is a particular threat.

Students from overseas have played a big role in the Richardson university’s rise in the past few years. As it strives to elevate itself to a top-tier public university, UT-Dallas has grown its overall enrollment 60 percent this decade. The international student population, which has been attracted to the school’s strength in engineering and business, has accounted for about a third of that growth, more than doubling to over 6,000 students.

Now, nearly a quarter of UT-Dallas’ students — and more than half of its graduate students — come from outside the United States. But in 2017, the number of international students dipped by 122.

“We certainly didn’t expect it,” said UT-Dallas President Richard Benson. “It was worth my attention that, by golly, we are going to look into this.”

Benson was hesitant to guess at the reasons for the dip but noted that it aligns with the nationwide trend. Experts on the subject say the international economy likely plays a role and more schools outside the United States are competing for students. Certain geopolitical issues are also likely at play — for instance, Saudi Arabia and Brazil have cut back on international scholarship funding in recent years.

But many experts point to the election of President Donald Trump and the political climate in the United States, too.

“We did hear from some institutions that there are concerns about both the social and political climate in the U.S. this year,” said Rajika Bhandari, head of research, policy and practice at the Institute of International Education. “They are particularly concerned about students from the Middle East, but also students from Asia and countries like China and India.”

Graduate student Vishal Keswani, the president of UT-Dallas’ Indian Students Association, says he has sensed some trepidation from students from his home country. They are less concerned about rhetoric from President Donald Trump or a feeling that students from India won’t be welcome in Dallas, he said. Rather, they have watched the news about Trump’s immigration policies and wonder whether they’ll get swept up in some sort of “travel ban.”

“They are worried about the experience that they are going to have,” Keswani said. “They fear that there are going to be changes on the policy side that affect students.”

Keswani said he speaks with many of those students and tries to put them at ease. He tells them that Trump has expressed no problem with students coming to America to study, and he says the climate in America is different than what the Indian media portrays.

“Sometimes when the news reaches other countries’ media, they will sensationalize it,” Keswani said.

UT-Dallas isn’t taking any chances. In a recent report to the University of Texas System Board of Regents, Benson listed growing the international student pool as one of his top five priorities over the next five years.

“We always want to fill our class with the best and the brightest students,” he said.

At least at the graduate level, most of the work of attracting international students is done by individual department heads and professors. Often particular departments or majors have pipelines to certain countries or regions — students who make their way to UT-Dallas may know others from the same country who will follow a few years later. But UT-Dallas is working on developing other outreach efforts that will introduce new people to its programs.

“The hardest thing by far is that zero step,” Benson said. “Once somebody has applied and shown interest here, there are lots of things we can do.”

Meanwhile, the university has tried to emphasize that it's a welcoming environment. The only knowledge that students from other countries have of Dallas — or Texas — might come from television shows or sports teams, so the university tries to highlight that Dallas is now an international city with particularly strong Asian and Latin-American communities.

Recently, the school made a YouTube video called “You Are Welcome Here” to drive home that point. It features students speaking numerous different languages touting the friendly environment of the school.

Reversing the decline will have major implications for the university. Not only does international enrollment affect the status and competitiveness of the school, it also affects the finances. International students pay significantly more in tuition. 

But, Benson said, “First and foremost, we want them for their intellect.”

Disclosure: The University of Texas System has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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