Oregon universities depend on foreign students to help close the funding gap. What happens when the revenue dries up?
The University of Oregon is famous in China, says Xinpei Sun, a 21-year-old advertising major and a native of Weihai, a city of 3 million people in the eastern Shandong province.
“The comments people leave about the school on Baidu are really impressive,” she says.
Baidu, aka Chinese Google, serves some 667 million users a month. They surf the site for goods and services, universities included, and if a product satisfies their growing middle-class appetite, they leave a positive review.
Sun was sold on UO’s academic reputation, but what sealed the deal were positive user comments about the Oregon lifestyle, the friendliness of the students and administration, and how welcoming Eugene is to Chinese students.
In 2014 Sun became a Duck, joining the school’s 3,200 other international students.
Internationalization has been a growing trend on American college campuses for the last decade, with over a million foreign students currently pursuing higher education here, according to the New York-based Institute of International Education.
The students come for a variety of reasons: a prestigious degree, international experience, better English skills. Many come here to learn how to question, how to push back, how to disrupt. Skills like these are neither taught nor rewarded at most schools back home.
U.S. colleges are reaping the benefits. The multitude of soft reasons to internationalize a campus include creating diversity and preparing local students for a global economy.
But these seem kumbaya-ish when compared to the tangible $36 billion international students inject into the economy.
For reasons that are not entirely clear, Oregon ranks unusually high compared to other states in foreign student recruitment. As a whole, the state has seen a 140% growth rate of foreign students since 2008, compared to a mere 56% nationally.
Education and demography trends offer some explanation.
The state’s population overall is growing at a rapid click as Oregon adds jobs faster than the rest of the nation. Population changes on campus also mirror shifts found throughout the state. Asians are now Oregon’s fastest growing demographic, making up 6% of the population.
Then there’s the outsized boost from Oregon State University.
The Corvallis-based institution reports a whopping 338% growth in the number of foreign students since 2008, more than seven times the U.S. average over the same time period.
This made OSU one of the fastest growing U.S. universities for international student visa growth in 2014, according to the Brookings Institution.
As of today, there are close to 4,000 international students from 44 different countries at the Corvallis campus, making up 12% of the total population.
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One other reason for Oregon’s high foreign student ranking stands out: The revenue stream helps compensate for longstanding higher-education funding deficits. Only 6% of UO’s budget comes from Salem, compared to the typical 20% to 35% allotted to higher education in other states.
“Attracting international students is a cutting-edge way to survive,” says UO vice provost for international affairs Dennis Galvan.
But dependency on foreign students alarms some Oregon policy makers, especially in a state where many low-income residents are unable to afford to go to college.
Oregon state representative Julie Parrish (R-Beaverton) says she’s concerned about a revenue mix that relies so heavily on out-of-state and international students.
“Since international tuition is high, they’re burdening these students at the highest disproportion of tuition to cover these costs,” she said in an email to Oregon Business.
"The Chinese economy went from 12% growth to 6%, and that was pre-Donald Trump."
Another conundrum: What happens to UO and Oregon’s six other public universities if that revenue disappears?
Several factors already threaten to chill this hot market. Economic growth in China, by and far the largest exporter of students to the U.S. and Oregon, is slowing, leaving less income to invest in education.
Back home, nationalistic rhetoric from President Trump may scare off other potential candidates.
A drop in international students would be “impactful” to Oregon, says Ben Cannon, executive director of the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission. “They are a significant source of revenue and subsidize tuition for resident students.”
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So far, U.S.-wide data on the potential drop of international enrollment next school year is mixed. And really, no one knows what will happen until the new term starts this month — September.
“We expect international enrollment to either flatten or increase slightly next year,” says Mark Hoffman, vice provost, division of international programs for OSU.
The University of Oregon may not be as lucky. Galvan expects numbers for international first-year and transfer students will be down. His reasons are not surprising.
“The Chinese economy went from 12% growth to 6%, and that was pre-Donald Trump,” he says. Most of UO’s international students — 33.5% — are from China, with South Korea and Canada coming in second and third.