UC Santa Barbara saw a 10 percent increase in international undergraduate applicants for the 2016-17 admissions cycle, while two fellow UC campuses saw the first decreases in more than a decade.
The drop in international applicants to both UC Berkeley and UC Riverside comes amid diminishing global interest in United States universities. Observers correlate this decrease with the election of Donald Trump as U.S. President.
Among more than 250 colleges and universities across the country, more than 40 percent reported at least a 2 percent decrease in international applicants, according to findings released April 5 by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO).
The UC saw a similar trend in 2004 and 2005 following the U.S.-led multinational invasion of Iraq. In contrast, American students responded to heightened political tensions following President George W. Bush’s declaration of a “war on terror” by showing an increased interest in studying abroad.
According to Juan Campo, the UCSB Education Abroad Program director, this year’s increase in applicants to EAP programs around the world is related to controversy surrounding the new administration’s policies, mirroring the surge in applicants in the aftermath of 9/11.
While there are currently no EAP programs in the six countries under Trump’s Middle East travel ban, Jordan is a popular location for students interested in studying in the region because of its central location and reputation as a reasonably stable nation.
According to Campo, more UCSB students applied to the EAP programs in Jordan than ever before, with an increase from three applicants for the 2016-17 school year to 13 for the 2017-18 school year.
“Our enrollments are up over last year, and I am not surprised,” Campo said. “[After 9/11] people were saying, ‘Oh, it’s going to go down,’ but no, because it may cause students to want to become more engaged with the world.”
“That’s what’s happening now … It’s really heartening to see that and looking system-wide they have a higher number of applications at this time than they had last year at this time,” he said.
The UC Office of the President has not yet determined if the drop in applicants of 1.2 percent at Berkeley and 2.2 percent at Riverside is linked to the national phenomenon, as official enrollment figures will be released later in April.
Lisa Przekop, UCSB director of admissions, said it is difficult to determine whether the university’s international applicant numbers will be similarly affected in the coming years. She acknowledged that the current political climate in the U.S. is a legitimate concern for students abroad.
“It’s important that we continue to communicate honestly with prospective students so we can address their concerns honestly, dispel inaccurate rumors, and show them that UCSB is a friendly community with esteemed faculty and talented students,” she said in an email.
Przekop said the close proximity of the application deadline to the presidential election likely influenced students’ decision whether or not to apply to the UC.
“There was election coverage that didn’t always show the U.S. as being welcoming to international guests,” Przekop said in an email. “Students abroad pay very close attention to what is happening politically in the U.S. and I’m certain that this played at least a small role in UC application numbers from international students.”
Mahdi Golkaram, an Iranian mechanical engineering Ph.D. student at UCSB, said his peers in Iran have certainly been discouraged from studying in the U.S. since the implementation of the travel ban.
According to Golkaram, the increasingly challenging process of obtaining a student visa, not the political tensions arising in the early months of the Trump administration, is the major deterrent for students debating whether to study in the U.S.
“At the end of the day if they need to get the admission letter, clearance, background check, it takes a long time. I have a lot of friends they just gave up and they went to Canada,” Golkaram said.
“Right now, I have been talking to a lot of friends, and they don’t even think about applying to the United States anymore because they know how hard it will be for them to go through this whole process,” he said.
Golkaram added that single-entry visas typically administered to international students make travel outside the U.S. nearly impossible, and he hasn’t left the U.S. for three years because he fears he may not secure a visa again.
“I would rather not leave the United States at all, which means I’m not going to see my country again for a long time,” he said.
According to Golkaram, the inability to travel outside of the U.S. proves especially challenging for graduate students, who are often expected to attend conferences abroad.
Simran Singh, director of the Office of International Student Services, said while the current political climate is likely a concern for international students, as well as for their parents, the more common barrier is posed by the complications in obtaining a visa.
Though the recent five percent increase in UC tuition for non-California residents brought the total cost to $41,964, Singh said she believes the tuition hike is not a likely contributing factor to the decrease in international applicants.
“If you look at the socioeconomic background of the students who are coming here, they really come from wealthy families and I don’t think that’s a deterrent per se,” Singh said.
While UCSB has yet to see a decrease in international applicants, Singh said, it is important for all departments on campus to make them feel safe and promote a reputation that the UC is equipped with the proper infrastructure to support traveling scholars.
“We are talked about as a world class research institution and what they really bring is the diversity,” Singh said. “These students bring so much of themselves when they come into our countries and into our institutions. We learn from them as much as they learn from us.”
Campo said the nationwide decrease in international applicants is very understandable “given the chaos” surrounding the implementation of the travel ban and the university should be taking concrete steps to ensure international students are not “affected adversely” by policies emerging from the Trump White House.
“The university has to affirm its place, not as a safe zone so much, but as a forum for bringing these issues to the surface and taking a clear stand on how a civil society remains open and tolerant to different points and perspectives to prevent people from being victims of racial violence or xenophobic or religious bias,” Campo said.
A version of this story appeared on p. 1 of the Thursday, April 6, 2017, edition of the Daily Nexus.