When Neha Upasana arrived at Governors State University from India last January, she was a rare sight on the south suburban campus: a new international student.
“Illinois was never on my mind until I came across Governors State,” Upasana said while sitting in the school’s main building overlooking the small lake in the middle of campus. It’s her favorite place to go when she’s homesick. “I love Illinois. I like the people. The people are so warm here. It’s just the weather that drives me nuts.”
Like other international students, Upasana chose the school because it was an affordable option close to a major city — but she was one of just a handful of Governors State’s admitted foreign students who actually got a visa to come to the U.S.
In 2017, the school saw its international enrollment drop by about 60 percent in just one year, mirroring national trends. International enrollment declined again this year, especially among graduate students.
Though foreign students are a small percentage of the student body, they’re important to the school’s bottom line. Like many public universities, Governors State relies on international students to pay more expensive out-of-state tuition than in-state students.
“Certainly with the declining birthrate we see, particularly in Illinois, it gives us [an] opportunity to maintain enrollment,” said Paul McGuinness, the vice president of enrollment at Governors State.
What’s behind dropping foreign enrollment
Many university leaders across the country point to President Donald Trump’s rhetoric on immigration and the current political climate as reasons for the decline. They say it’s made the U.S. a less appealing place for students to study.
“It doesn’t lend itself really well to recruit globally,” McGuinness said. “As a whole, I just don't think the U.S. has this perception of open arms like it did maybe several years ago.”
Fewer students are applying to U.S. schools, and the U.S. State Department is also issuing fewer visas. Last year, it issued about 17 percent fewer than the year before.
Upasana said she feels lucky to have gotten a visa on the first try. She’s happy to be in the U.S., but said the politics here can be stressful.
“It always keeps international students on our toes,” said Upasana, who is working toward a master’s in health administration. “We don’t know what’s going to happen next.”
Like many international students, she’s worried about getting a job in the United States after she graduates. The Trump administration has made it more difficult for students to stay in the country after graduation by reducing the time students can work.
That’s pushing students toward schools in other countries, such as Canada and Australia. Schools in those countries also have improved their recruitment efforts.
For example, the percentage of Indian students granted visas in Canada jumped 60 percent between 2016 and 2017, according to the Canadian government.
All of this is a problem for Governors State, an institution still recovering from the enrollment losses that hit many Illinois public universities during the state’s recent budget impasse.
Boosting the odds of getting a visa
This year, the school is trying something new.
They hired a “country manager” for Indian students based in India this fall. Most international students at Governors State are from that country, with most enrolling in the school’s computer science master’s program.
The country manager recruits new students and he helps them through the application and enrollment process, including the most stressful part for many students: the visa interview.
“The first question that a student asks when I call them is, ‘Hey, what are the chances of getting a visa?’” said Krishna Prasanth, the recently hired country manager.
Prasanth says many students have no idea what to expect during the interview, which can last as little as two minutes. As it gets tougher to get a visa approved, Governors State wants to make sure there’s no reason for the state department to deny accepted students.
So Prasanth preps them with mock interviews, asking them questions they can expect to get, such as whether they intend to return to their home country after graduating (hint: the answer is yes).
A student visa isn’t an immigrant visa. Therefore, students should intend to return home, even if they plan to work in the U.S. for a few years after they graduate.
McGuinness says students also just get nervous when they arrive at a U.S. consulate for their interview.
“You’re in this big building, right?” he said. “And then you have to go through a process and get past security and be escorted to a particular room. And in this room, you’re probably talking thru bullet proof glass … so it’s a lot of pressure.”
Governors State says they’re ahead of the curve. A private company recently approached them offering to do practice visa interviews with students, just like what KP is doing in India, university officials said.
Prasanth has been successful so far.
Governors State has seen a jump in applicants for the spring semester and it has admitted 53 percent more international students than this time last year. But the percentage of students getting visas is still in the single digits.
As Prasanth settles into his new position, Governors State hopes to see many more more Indian students leaving the U.S. consulate in India with approved visas.
Correction: Paul McGuinness is the vice president of enrollment at Governors State.