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Decline in international students at Miami contributes to budget deficit

In the fall of 2018, nearly 300 first-year international students enrolled at Miami University.

This fall, Miami first-year international students numbered less than 50.

A decrease in the number of international students enrolled isn't unique to Miami, said Kathleen Gutheil, director of international and transfer admission. This decline can be seen all across the country.

Many factors out of the university’s control have contributed to the decline.

“These students have to get what we call a student visa to study in the U.S., and there definitely have been visa delays or denials that we can't really control,” Gutheil said. “Also, there's a lot of competition from universities around the world … Canada does a fantastic job, and the U.K., Australia and other countries are really getting into trying to get students.”

This decline in international students at Miami has consequences on the university’s budget. 

David Creamer, vice president for finance and business services and treasurer, said because tuition costs are higher for international students, the decline in their enrollment has tightened Miami’s budget.

Creamer said the tuition revenue generated this year is $59 million below the university’s peak.

This tuition revenue goes to many areas of the university, including faculty compensation, operation of buildings and various student services, Creamer said. 

“[The decline of international students] impacts what we can do for compensation for employees,” Creamer said. “As we look at academic programs and things that we want to be able to do, it creates more limitations there when our revenue is off from what it's been in prior years.”

Coupled with this decline in tuition revenue is an increase in spending on scholarships.

Creamer said the university’s spending on scholarships has increased by $39 million since 2020 and $16 million since 2021. This academic year, the total estimated spending on scholarships is $153 million.

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While some scholarship funding comes from alumni and other sources, Creamer said the greatest amount comes from the university’s internal budget.

“Anytime you're trying to grow the enrollment to replace the loss of a group of students like this (international students), the amount of scholarship spend[ing] tends to rise to be able to generate that additional enrollment from those other other areas,” Creamer says. “Right now, we're seeing the total scholarship cost to enroll a class that's somewhat comparable to before the pandemic has become more expensive.”

A large percent of Miami’s international student population has historically been from China. In fall 2019, 2,334 of the international students enrolled were from China. By fall 2022 only 807 international students were from China. 

Molly Heidemann, international student and scholars services director, said the decline in international students at Miami has largely been due to fewer international students coming from China.

“[China was] really building up [and promoting] their own higher education system,” Heidemann said. “There was a trend of employers starting to prefer people who had gone to school and studied in China.”

Gutheil said conditions in the U.S. around 2018-2019 also contributed to the decline in Chinese international students because that was a time where there might have been tension between the Trump administration and China.

Despite the decrease in applications from Chinese international students, Gutheil said application numbers are still strong from other countries.

Junior mechanical engineering major Juan Moya is an international student from Ecuador. Moya says Miami’s international student and scholars services (ISSS) are approachable and informative.

Moya says that ISSS held many Zoom meetings, guiding international students through the process of studying abroad and describing Miami. Moya and his parents were even able to set up a phone call with ISSS.

“[ISSS has] really good ideas to bring international students and make them feel comfortable,” Moya said. “They made me feel very comfortable with Miami, ISSS is pretty good.”

Recruiting efforts have begun to focus more closely on India. Gutheil said as India’s economy strengthens, many universities are running out of seats for students who want to attend college.

“There's a lot of families with the economy [in India that are] able to afford to go to the U.S., but in India, it's still primarily a graduate market,” Gutheil said. “We're really trying to tap in and find those undergrad students throughout India.”

Even with the decline in enrollment of Chinese international students, Moya says he has noticed that many international students are from Asia generally. Moya says he has friends who go to college in Florida who can mostly speak Spanish at school, which he can’t do at Miami. 

“In my class when we arrived, there were a lot of Asian students. A couple from Europe and then it was just this girl from Bolivia and I from Latin America,” Moya said. “So for sure, not a lot of diversity in that sense.”

Gutheil said this year, the top country where applicants came from was Nigeria, followed by Uzbekistan, Ghana, India, Nepal and China.

Heidemann said this changing demographic has led costs to become a concern for international students attending Miami.

“With our students coming from various South Asian and West African countries, we're seeing more don't have as many family funds saved up,” Heidemann said. “Or maybe they just did not fully realize all the expenses they would incur.”

This changing demographic has led Gutheil’s department to change their recruitment strategies. Part of this change includes how the department uses social media to recruit students.

“We're not only focusing on social media that's used in the U.S. but we're looking at country-specific use,” Gutheil said. “For example, in India, WhatsApp is a very popular platform, or we're using WeChat in China, Vallo in Vietnam.”

Recruiting efforts have also turned their attention to networks in various countries. Gutheil said the department has been working with government agencies and sponsoring organizations to create pipelines through partnerships.

Moya first heard about Miami through a college counselor in Ecuador who had a contact at Miami. Moya knew he wanted to major in engineering and began learning more about Miami.

“I looked up my major, how good the program was here. I didn't want to go to a very big school,” Moya said. “Miami just got into my list because of all those factors.”

The department also utilizes alumni and current international students to attract students from other countries.

“International student ambassadors are probably the best source for recruiting students,” Gutheil said. “Career outcomes are huge right now … Students want to know what kind of job [they] will get, what they're prepared to do and what we prepare them for.”

In response to COVID-19 increasing the difficulty of travel, the department has hired two admissions representatives based in China and India.

“Having someone on the ground that knows the culture, understands what students are looking for [and] what parents are asking, really is very important for us and helps kind of bring like, ‘Oh yeah, Miami, this is a real place here’s a real person,’” Gutheil said.

Moya says that COVID-19 didn’t create challenges in coming to Miami for him. Because Moya’s last two years of high school were online, he was excited that his first semester at Miami took place in person.

“My friends who stayed at home and they go to college at home, they had to do their first semester online,”  Moya said. “So it was good for me that I was going to be able to go straight to classes and everything.”

At this point, Creamer said it is not clear how quickly Miami will be able to recover from these budgetary losses. He does not see spending on scholarships slowing down in the future.

“There's no easy solution because we're expecting that the number of high school graduates is going to decline,” Creamer said. “There's going to be more competition for students that tends to lead to larger scholarship amounts being necessary for every institution to fill out their class.”