To sell their degrees overseas, University of Oregon officials rely on word of mouth and positive social media reviews.
Portland State University also depends on word-of-mouth, particularly for its electrical engineering and computer science programs. The school also has recruiters who travel internationally. Additionally, PSU works closely with governments that sponsor international students.
The OSU juggernaut takes these strategies one step further: The Corvallis-based institution collaborates with a private company, U.K.-based INTO University Partnerships, to attract and enroll international students.
OSU’s Hoffman declined to discuss financial details other than to say it’s a 50/50 public/private partnership.
The collaboration has paid off in spades. Prior to inking their 2008 deal, OSU claimed fewer than 1,000 international students compared to the 4,000 today.
“INTO has regional offices throughout the world,” Hoffman says. “We just don’t have that kind of infrastructure in-house.”
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Founded in 2005, INTO currently partners with 10 U.S. schools. They recruit the students, hire additional faculty and staff and help design English-language and study-skill programs for students who wouldn’t otherwise qualify for direct entry. After completing the three-term INTO OSU’s Pathway program, for example, undergraduates progress to their second year toward a degree.
After years of phenomenal growth at OSU and other American schools, interest in studying in America is waning, says Tim O’Brien, vice president for INTO’s global partnerships.
O’Brien agrees that the rhetoric coming out of the White House is “unhelpful,” but he calls it premature to say any slowdown is a direct consequence of Trump.
“The U.S. is not defined by one Twitter account," he says.
Unfavorable exchange rates and the drop in the price of oil are among other factors bearing down on international student recruitment, O’Brien says.
Still, he concedes there is rising fear about personal safety, particularly from potential students from India after the February 2017 shooting of two Indian engineers in Kansas.
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Fear doesn’t drive Bhavana Ramesh, a recent graduate of Portland State University’s engineering technology management program.
She could have earned a less expensive post-graduate degree in her native India, like her younger brother did. But she wanted immersion in a culture where minds are open and disrupters are rewarded.
“That doesn’t happen in India,” Ramesh says. “We’re still an ‘arranged-marriage culture.’”
Ramesh is not alone at PSU. The school’s Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science enrolls 600 international students, accounting for roughly 23% of enrollment. Most graduate students at Maseeh are from India, a relief to Ramesh but not a surprise.
“I was expecting this,” she says. “When I conducted my research, people said, ‘No worries; you will find other brown people, other Indians.’”
Maseeh College dean Renjeng Su acknowledges that international students are his school’s bread and butter. A drop in applications earlier in the year was alarming and prompted immediate action.
“We responded to admissions earlier than usual, and right now our numbers look good,” he says.