US colleges assure overseas students: You are welcome here

In this Feb. 18, 2017 photo provided by the University of New England, political science major and resident assistant Clancy Phillips, right, speaks to prospective students at an open house on the school's satellite campus in the Moroccan coastal city of Tangier. In response to concerns about anti-immigrant sentiment, some U.S. colleges are making new efforts to help international students feel welcome and reassure them of their safety. (Rachid Ouettassi/University of New England via AP)

(AP) – On a trip to India, the president of Portland State University reassured prospective students they’d be safe on his campus. Purdue University sent overseas applicants a note from two mayors touting Indiana’s “friendly smiles” and hospitality. And dozens of other schools produced online videos to welcome foreign students.

As U.S. colleges face new but significant declines in applications from abroad, many are rolling out marketing efforts to combat fears of harassment and concerns that President Donald Trump’s stance on immigration reflects a United States that is becoming less welcoming to foreigners.

“Students are telling us that they don’t feel safe here in the United States. That they’re concerned about discrimination, racism,” said Katharine Johnson Suski, admissions director at Iowa State University. “This year it was a little more important to make sure that they felt comfortable with their decision.”

Colleges and universities have received a financial boost in recent years from international students, who are typically charged higher tuition rates than American peers who live in state. Some schools have come to rely on revenue from foreign students, whose enrollment has climbed sharply over much of the past decade, according to federal data.

But there is evidence enrollment figures at some schools could drop next fall. Nearly half the nation’s 25 largest public universities saw undergraduate applications from abroad fall or stagnate since last year, according to data colleges provided to The Associated Press in response to public records requests. Eight schools did not provide data, while six saw gains.

International applications to the University of Arizona are down 24 percent compared with this time last year; California State University, Northridge, is down 26 percent. The University of Houston has seen a 32 percent drop, although it’s still accepting applications and its numbers will likely rise.

The U.S. Department of Education did not immediately comment.

Philadelphia’s Temple University sparked a chain reaction in November when it posted an online video featuring students and staff members saying “You are welcome here” in multiple languages, set to upbeat piano music. Since then, more than 100 other schools have made similar videos and circulated them abroad. Temple also hosted seven overseas receptions for admitted students, more than in the past.

At Iowa State University, officials are ramping up their overseas mailings to sell students on the school’s Midwestern charm. The University of Minnesota is considering a phone campaign. The University of Florida has produced videos featuring “global Gators” and is offering online video chats.

“Given the current climate, it seems like this is something which is even more important,” said Joseph Glover, provost at Florida. “Obviously we are concerned about the situation, like every other public university in the United States.”

Safety concerns are nothing new among international students, but many schools say anxieties have grown since Trump was elected. Some students have said Trump’s “America first” rhetoric and his proposal to ban immigration from six majority-Muslim nations have given them pause. Some application deadlines fell before the election, but even Trump’s campaign rhetoric cast doubts, experts say.

Students in India have been particularly alarmed, especially after a gunman shot two Indian men at a Kansas bar in March, killing one, after allegedly saying “get out of my country.”

Portland State President Wim Wiewel was in India soon after the shooting to meet prospective students, and the discussion quickly turned to safety. Wiewel and his wife reassured families that Portland is friendly to foreign visitors.

“People in America recognize that even though there are a few crazies around, it’s not like it’s open season on Indians or Muslims,” Wiewel said. “Having us talk to them totally took away their fears. But the problem, of course, is we can’t talk to everyone.”

Some government officials are trying to tackle the problem, too. Several of the videos feature cameos from state governors or congressional members. A top official from America’s embassy in India penned a newspaper column last week stressing that “U.S. colleges and universities take pride in providing safe and welcoming environments.”

Along with India, fewer applications have been coming from China and Saudi Arabia, which previously sent large numbers to American colleges. Experts say factors at play include economic turmoil in China and India, but some have blamed the downturn on a “Trump effect.”

Officials at the University of New England say Trump’s election has complicated plans to recruit Moroccan students. At a February open house in Tangier, the election was a frequent concern.

“Several students wearing hijabs wondered whether they would be welcome in the United States, given the election of Donald Trump and the rhetoric they were hearing,” said Anouar Majid, vice president for global affairs at the private school in Biddeford, Maine. “We assured them that the United States is very welcoming.”

When he applied to the University of New England, 17-year-old Aymane Lamharzi Alaoui was worried about discrimination, he said. Since then, he has spoken with family members in Boston and believes Americans are more welcoming than some of Trump’s comments suggest.

“I know there’s an increase in xenophobia and racism in the past couple of months in the U.S.,” he said in an interview. “I’m sure there are some places where I wouldn’t be very welcome, especially places in the southern United States, but I think most of the country is very tolerant.”

For most colleges, it’s too early to know how many overseas students will enroll next fall. But many say any loss could be a blow.

At Iowa State, where applications are down 23 percent, international students bring valued diversity, said Suski, the admissions director. And there is also the revenue they provide.

“There will,” Suski said, “be a financial impact on our campus come this fall.”

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Find Collin Binkley on Twitter at @cbinkley.

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This story deletes an incorrect reference to Temple being a private university.

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