Not long ago, three of Mostafa Mobli’s former Iranian classmates were thinking of following him to the United States to work toward their doctoral degrees.
After the election of President Donald Trump and the Republican’s January U.S. travel ban against citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iran, those plans changed.
One of Mobli’s friends is staying home. The other two are headed to Europe for school.
“It was really disappointing for Iranian students,” said Mobli, a 28-year-old Iranian working toward his doctorate in mechanical engineering at the University of South Carolina. “We don’t have many refugees, so the travel ban is aimed at students who are here for higher education. ... The travel ban has had a huge effect on the mentality of Iranian students who wanted to come to the United States.”
That so-called “Trump effect” is taking its toll on South Carolina’s three research universities. And it is affecting more than prospective Iranian students.
Nearly half of the nation’s 25 largest public colleges have seen undergraduate applications from abroad stall or drop since last year, according to The Associated Press.
A March survey of more than 250 colleges found nearly 40 percent had seen a decline in applications from international students. Those students are valuable to colleges because they pay higher out-of-state tuition, typically perform well in the classroom and add to campus diversity, college officials say.
Educators and college enrollment managers point the finger at an emerging worldwide perception that the United States has become less friendly to international students and visitors.
They say the Trump effect has roots in the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the 2016 presidential campaign and in Trump’s subsequent travel ban, both of which gave pause to parents thinking of sending their children away to study for years at a time.
“The generic message that has gone out has been one of some level of antipathy toward Muslim students, Middle Eastern students, foreign students,” said Barmak Nassirian, director of federal policy at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. “The slightest public provocation or incident or issue could pour a bucket of ice water on the family thinking of letting go of their children.
“It is way too early to declare doom and gloom. But it has not been an easy international admissions cycle.”
‘The canary in the coal mine’
At USC, international applications were down roughly 11 percent in 2016, compared to 2015. They’re expected to drop again this year.
Currently, international applications are down 17 percent from the same time last year, according to Scott Verzyl, USC’s associate vice president for enrollment management.
It is early in the 2017 admissions cycle, Verzyl said, but “that’s the canary in the coal mine for us.”
USC received more than 2,500 international applications in 2016, most from graduate students, with 688 foreign students ultimately enrolling.
In 2016, Clemson University received more than 5,000 overseas applications, with 734 foreign students enrolling.
However, Clemson’s international applications dropped 8.5 percent last year. This year, they are down 12 percent from that total, according to preliminary data.
International enrollment at the Medical University of South Carolina – where 163 foreign students applied in 2016, 15 of whom enrolled – has dropped roughly 9.4 percent since 2014.
“It seems like most schools are feeling this impact,” Verzyl said.
It is unlikely the declines are entirely Trump-driven. Other forces guide the international student market. Money for government exchange programs can dry up. Other countries can offer incentives to talented students who stay home.
Recently, a stronger U.S. dollar has made living and studying here more expensive for international students.
But the Trump effect is real, educators say.
A national survey of 100 college enrollment managers found 44 percent expect the Trump administration’s policies to have a high negative impact on international enrollment. Just 4 percent expected no impact.
That’s concerning, Nassirian said, because the international students now heading for Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom or other English-speaking countries could be boosting the tuition revenues and academic standings of U.S. schools.
“It tends to weaken institutions because revenues and academics are the two coins of the realm,” Nassirian said.
‘I always feel welcome here’
Mobli said prospective Iranian students bristled at Trump’s travel ban, later modified, and the New York Republican’s sharp criticism of Iran.
“I’m living here, and I know that people don’t treat us badly. I always feel welcome here,” Mobli said. “But for people who are not here, people not living in the United States, they just hear the administration’s rhetoric, and they think Americans feel the same way.”
Some colleges have ramped up efforts to address the perception of hostility to foreigners. Dozens of schools have produced online videos as part of a national campaign called “You Are Welcome Here.”
In 2015, USC launched an effort to reach out to newly accepted international students and walk them through the next steps toward admission, hoping to show them someone on campus cares and “is going to look out for them,” Verzyl said.
“We’ve increased how we do it, the frequency of it,” Verzyl said. “We try to contact students in advance. In the past, we may have taken more of a reactive approach, where we wait for the student to say, ‘Here I am. What do I do?’
“Now, we go out and contact them.”
The Trump effect?
Educators say a worldwide perception that the United States is becoming less friendly to foreigners is to blame for a dip in the number of overseas students applying to go to U.S. colleges. A look at how international applications dropped at South Carolina’s three research universities from 2014 to 2016.
University of South Carolina: 16.5 percent
Clemson: 12.2 percent
Medical University of South Carolina: 9.4 percent