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Fewer Middle Eastern students are enrolling at Boise State

Boise State Global Education Center

Boise State Global Education Center Assistant Provost Gonzalo Bruce talks about why students from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are decreasing.
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Boise State Global Education Center Assistant Provost Gonzalo Bruce talks about why students from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are decreasing.

Boise State University international-student enrollment increased nearly 25 percent from 2013 to 2016. Last year it dropped 15 percent, from 872 students to 737.

While this 135-student decrease is less than 1 percent of Boise State’s overall enrollment of 23,886, it could indicate a changing pattern in foreign-student enrollment across the country.

“International enrollment in U.S. universities has always been very cyclical and sensitive to a number of factors,” said Gonzalo Bruce, assistant provost of Boise State’s new Center for Global Education, which works to boost foreign-student recruitment and retention. “The U.S. has seen influx of students from specific countries, which later vanished. That is the case of Iranian students in the ’70s, Thai students in the ’80s, Brazilian students in the early 2010s.”

Boise State’s decrease can be attributed to two countries — Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, whose combined enrollment decreased 23 percent last year. Saudi enrollment fell by 59 to 191, while Kuwaiti enrollment fell by 72 to 239.

Idaho State University in Pocatello and the University of Idaho in Moscow also report international-student enrollment declines of 35 percent and 20 percent, respectively, from 2015 to 2016. Idaho State’s decline is mainly due to fewer Saudi and Kuwaiti students, while the University of Idaho’s is mainly due to fewer Brazilians.

At least three developments explain this downward trend at Boise State, Bruce said.

The first involves changes by Saudi and Kuwaiti government policies. For Saudi Arabia, reduced oil revenues curbed investment in the government’s scholarship program. “New Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz shifted priorities for government scholarships and made it more competitive for students,” Bruce said.

Last year, both the Saudi and Kuwaiti governments stopped enrolling students in certain programs nationwide because they had reached the caps they set for numbers of students they want to enroll in the programs.

The Saudis are no longer enrolling in Boise State’s supply-chain management program, and the Kuwaitis are no longer enrolling in the mechanical engineering program, according to Bruce.

Any Saudi or Kuwaiti students already enrolled can finish, but there are no incoming freshmen. Even with the cutbacks, the countries still account for the two largest groups of international students at Boise State.

Boise State junior Naser Alfadhli, 21, is studying mechanical engineering under the Kuwaiti-sponsored program. He had hoped his cousin would join him, but due to the cutback, he cannot. Instead, his cousin is studying electrical engineering in West Virginia.

“I hope they remove the block from Boise,” he said. “It is a great experience here.”

The second reason is a decision by Boise State to raise English proficiency scores for international admission in fall 2015 and again in fall 2016.

“When we had low English requirements for admission, Boise State was attractive for students who needed admission to a U.S. university to become eligible for funding,” Bruce said. “Some of these students came with no expectation of graduating from Boise State. They came to complete foundation courses (particularly English 101) and then transferred to another university.”

The third change is a revision in 2014 by the university’s College of Engineering to some of its policies, which disqualified or otherwise prevented some students from enrolling in or continuing in the program.

While Saudi and Kuwaiti enrollment at Boise State is declining, enrollment from other countries is increasing.

In 2013, Boise State had no students from Bangladesh. This year it has 19. In the same period, the enrollment from India, Korea and Spain doubled to 66.

“(The) tech industry in Boise is attractive for Indian students, Boise State has developed new partner agreements with Korean institutions and Boise State has systematically worked with universities in the Basque country,” he said.

Bruce sees a chance to boost enrollment from another promising source: China.

“Boise State is poised to be great fit for this large market of students, in terms of campus environment and academic programs,” Bruce said.

Unfriendly U.S. policies could drive away more students

International student enrollment in the U.S. from 2005 to 2015 almost doubled to 1 million.

During the 2015-16 academic year, those students contributed $32.8 billion and 400,812 jobs to the U.S. economy, according to an analysis by NAFSA: Association of International Educators. China, India, Saudi Arabia and South Korea accounted for 59 percent, according to the Institute of International Education.

Idaho’s international-student enrollment more than doubled from 2010 to 2015, from 2,112 to 4,501. Those students added $112 million to Idaho’s economy during the 2015-16 academic year, according to the study.

Nearly 40 percent of U.S. colleges reported declines in applications from the Middle East, according to a recent survey by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. Reasons given included concerns that student visas would be hard to obtain or may not be honored, and student safety.

“It is clear that the political rhetoric of the 2016 election and the executive orders of the new administration have added complexity to the international recruitment efforts of U.S. higher-education institutions,” concluded the report released April 4.

Earlier this year President Donald Trump issued two executive orders temporarily banning travel, including students and scholars, from six Muslim-majority nations. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are not among those nations.

On April 18, Trump signed another executive order that could further deter foreign students from enrolling in American schools. It calls for overhauling H-1B visas issued to highly skilled foreigners.

Higher education ranks third behind technology-related occupations as the largest group of H-1B visa recipients. A bigger concern, though, is how this could affect international student enrollment in the U.S.

“For many international students, the opportunity to stay in the United States, even temporarily, after graduation and gain work experience is almost as valuable as an American degree itself,” according to an April 19 Chronicle of Higher Education report. “Any policy that might erect hurdles on the pathway from college to work could depress international enrollments.”

Cynthia Sewell: 208-377-6428, @CynthiaSewell

Foreign students at Idaho’s 3 state universities

International students

Percent of total enrollment

Top origin countries

Boise State University

2013

660

3

Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, China

2014

742

4

Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, S. Korea

2015

872

4

Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, S. Korea

2016

737

3

Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, China

Idaho State University

2013

924

6

Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, China

2014

1,416

10

Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, China

2015

1,438

11

Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Nepal

2016

928

7

Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Nepal

University of Idaho

2013

721

6

China, Saudi Arabia, Brazil

2014

951

8

China, Brazil, Saudi Arabia

2015

884

8

China, Saudi Arabia, Brazil

2016

707

8

China, Saudi Arabia, India

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