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Michigan universities roll out welcome mat to attract foreign students

By David Jesse/Detroit Free Press (TNS) • Feb 19, 2019 at 7:00 PM

Like any Las Vegas wager, it has considerable upside: Convince more students from around the world to come to Mount Pleasant, Grand Rapids or Detroit for college and get much-needed tuition dollars flowing in.

So Michigan's public universities are continuing to send representatives into countries around the world, trying to find students looking for an American college degree.

The schools need the gamble to pay off. With many Michigan universities struggling financially, getting more foreign students on campus, and the tuition dollars they bring with them into university coffers, is seen as one way to stave off financial problems.

But the gamble isn't a guaranteed winner — foreign student enrollment at U.S. universities and colleges fell nearly 7 percent in 2017-18 compared with the year before, according to the Institute for International Education. Among the reasons for the drop? Tighter immigration policies from the Trump administration, the report says.

Is the gamble working for Michigan colleges? That depends on the school.

Four universities — the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, the University of Michigan Dearborn, Michigan State University and Michigan Technological University have more than 8 percent of their student body coming from overseas, according to data released this fall by the state Senate Fiscal Agency. The state overall is up about 1,000 foreign students from 2013, but down about 2,000 foreign students from the heights of 2015.

It's students that really matter, thanks to plunging numbers of in-state students. Nine of Michigan's 15 public universities enroll fewer students than they did five years ago. And there's a smaller and smaller pool of Michigan students to draw from. The number of high school graduates in the state is down 11 percent in the last decade, with demographers warning the number of high school graduates is likely to keep dropping in the next decade.

Demographers say the decline is in large part to slowing birthrates and a decade of people leaving the state. In essence, there are simply fewer children in K-12 schools, which means fewer college-going students.

Michigan universities charge foreign students more to come to school than they charge in-state students. However, there are often scholarships available from home countries to attend school. Michigan schools also have partnerships with universities in foreign countries, which helps steer potential students to Michigan.

Among the pitches to foreign students is opportunity — not only for an American education, but to stay in the U.S. after graduation for a job, often with an American company with overseas interests looking for students comfortable in a variety of situations.

That's what brought Fatima Winston, 27, of Grand Rapids, to Kalamazoo to go to Western Michigan University from her home in Saudi Arabia.

"I had cousins who had gone (to Western) and my parents wanted me to get a college degree in America," she said. "I wanted a chance to come, get an education and get a job here."

That's what happened. She graduated, got a job working for an accounting firm near Grand Rapids and got married.

"It was hard at first to decide to come," she said. "But it really helped that so many other people (from Saudi Arabia) had already been. It wasn't as bad coming here as if I had gone somewhere where there was no one from my country. That was a really big selling point to me and that I could use my degree to get a job."

The decline in enrollment has led to financial issues at Michigan's universities. At Eastern Michigan, about 100 positions have been cut in the past three years. At Central Michigan, about 50 positions have been cut.

"Our decade-old enrollment trend line and trajectory are a significant concern," Central Michigan President Robert Davies said in remarks Thursday at the school's board meeting, according to a written copy. "We will expand our outreach, especially in metro Detroit, Grand Rapids, Chicago and other select out of state and international target markets. The road will not be easy. Recovery from a decade of decline will not come overnight."

But there are success stories in attracting foreign students — and not just at the biggest universities.

"We are really trying to diversify our enrollment," said Jenna Briggs, senior director of advanced studies and international student services at Saginaw Valley State University, noting the school has students from 57 countries. "We never want to have all our eggs in our basket, not only in terms of enrollment but also diversity."

So where are students coming from?

It's not hard to walk around Ann Arbor, Houghton or East Lansing and run into a student coming from a different country.

Drawn by world-class reputations in various fields, about 15 percent of the student body at each school comes from overseas. Among the most popular majors — health care, engineering and information technology.

But schools like Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo and Saginaw Valley State University in Saginaw are also attracting students — and not necessarily from a country that might first pop to mind.

According to the latest numbers from the state, about 70 percent of the state's foreign students come from five countries.

Leading the way are students from China, who make up 37 percent of the state's foreign students. Nearly half of all Chinese students go to Michigan State, with another 35 percent getting their schooling at U-M in Ann Arbor.

Li Chen was on campus Friday to meet a family member who currently goes to U-M. Chen came to U-M from China and graduated three years ago.

"I really wanted to go away from China to study," Chen, 28, of Novi said. "A lot of my friends from growing up went outside of China to go to (college). It wasn't very unusual."

He went to a college fair, met a representative from U-M and made his decision.

"I never actually was here until I was a student," he said. "I used the (Internet) to look around campus. It was so much fun and I learned so much."

Students from India are the next biggest group — and the only nation among the five most popular countries to increase its numbers in the last year. About 16 percent of the state's foreign students come from India, with 22 percent of them heading to U-M and 17 percent to Wayne State.

The other three countries are Saudi Arabia, Canada and South Korea. Canadian enrollment has been consistent for several years, with Wayne State getting just over a third of all Canadian students. The University of Michigan gets the biggest chunk of South Korean students.

And for Saudi Arabian students? They are headed to smaller schools.

Where are the Saudi students going?

When recruiters from Western Michigan and Saginaw Valley land in Saudi Arabia, they find a receptive audience.

That's because students from the Middle Eastern country have been coming to Saginaw and Kalamazoo for years, thanks to partnerships between the Saudi government and the universities.

The Saudi government's cultural mission has scholarships that bring Saudi students to American universities and in Michigan, no more so than Western and Saginaw Valley. About 27 percent of all Saudi students in Michigan go to Western, while about 15 percent go to Saginaw Valley.

"We have a long-standing relationship with the Saudi government," said Paulo Zagalo-Melo, associate provost for the Haenicke Institute for Global Education at Western Michigan. "We have second-generation students from Saudi Arabia on campus. They are coming because their parents are alumni and their dream has been to have their children come to America and study here just like they did."

And if their parents didn't come to Western, another family member or friend might have.

"Word of mouth is one of our key ways we recruit," Zagalo-Melo said.

There's an Islamic Center near campus and students know they can get halal meat and other food items near campus.

And there's the draw of Michigan itself, where Arabic is the third-most spoken language.

"They are comfortable here," said Zagalo-Melo. "Trust relationships are built with time and word of mouth."

The situation is much the same at Saginaw Valley, said Briggs from Saginaw Valley. Their pitch to students? A very affordable price for a good degree. Students are increasingly studying health care, engineering and computer science.

Once they get on campus, the school helps them adjust. The police department teaches them about driving in America. The food service workers work with them to teach cooking to those who don't know how to cook.

Then the students either go home to get good jobs, go on to graduate school or stay in America with good jobs. And the reputation grows, making it easier to recruit.

"It's word of mouth that helps us," Briggs said. "The students know they are going to go to (a school) where the professors know them and they are going to get a great education."

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