Flashpoint: Engineering education not immune to international enrollment crisis

RJ Nichol
Feb 26, 2020

Originally published in the Tribune-Star

By Craig G. Downing, Ph.D, associate dean of lifelong learning, department head and professor of engineering management at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology and chair of Liaison’s EngineeringCAS Advisory Board

As an international application and enrollment crisis continues to sweep higher education in the United States, engineering programs seem to have weathered the storm. But that shouldn’t lull the field into a false sense of security.

The number of foreign students applying to American academic institutions and eventually choosing to enroll in the U.S. has declined in recent years. The Council of Graduate Schools has reported that for the fall of 2018, applications from potential graduate students from overseas fell 4 percent, while the number of international graduate students who enrolled in American programs declined 1 percent. U.S. business schools have suffered a particularly alarming 13.7-percent drop in international student applications during the 2019-2020 academic year, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council.

At the same time, engineering remains the most popular field of study for international students. The Institute of International Education’s (IIE) recently published 2019 Open Doors report found that engineering students now account for 21 percent of America’s total international student population. Yet IIE also reports that international enrollment in engineering programs decreased in the 2018-2019 school year. The decline was less than 1 percent, but it’s still a notable development.

Now is not the time for the engineering education community to rest on its laurels, confident that current efforts to attract and communicate with the best students in the world will continue to bear fruit.

Communicating effectively with international students begins with summoning the courage to confront today’s defining challenges and yes, even to address the often-uncomfortable news headlines. International students are seeking to maximize their academic and professional experience in the U.S., but age-old assumptions about their ability to do so are being called into question.

For instance, international students have long been drawn to the U.S. by the possibility of participating in a Curricular Practical Training (CPT) or Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, which allows them to work in their field for up three years after graduation. However, a recent lawsuit filed by the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers aims to end the OPT program, arguing that “the Department of Homeland Security exceeded its regulatory authority in creating the OPT program, effectively establishing a large-scale foreign guest worker program without congressional approval.”

How should engineering programs respond when potential applicants from overseas ask if they will be able to participate in an OPT program after graduation and continue working in the U.S.? What forums should schools use to address such concerns?

Given the fluid policy landscape, engineering education professionals cannot definitively answer these questions. Yet the first step is refusing to avoid the conversation. Engineering programs can empathize with international applicants’ current dilemmas while making clear that although the academic community doesn’t control policy outcomes in Washington, colleges and universities can do everything in their power to enhance students’ experience on campus and to set them up for success in the future workforce, even if they gain employment outside the U.S.

It boils down to persuasively communicating the value of academic programs to prospective international students. Academic programs can streamline and facilitate the application experience for international students, particularly regarding the use of innovative digital interfaces. In doing so, institutions must remember to communicate in a fashion that resonates with applicants from outside the U.S., such as those who are in the process of obtaining visas and updating their statuses.

That’s precisely the mindset embraced by EngineeringCAS, a global platform that helps graduate engineering programs drive application volume by optimizing applicants’ experience. EngineeringCAS enables applicants to enter new information about visa validity dates, issuance and sponsorship at any time during the application process — including after submitting their applications. It also allows schools to customize language on the application portal and receive user feedback.

Incorporating such technology into a program’s application process sends an important message to international applicants that the academic institution understands their needs and makes them a top priority. From an institution’s perspective, it also acknowledges that the engineering education community is not immune to the international enrollment crisis and stands ready to use all the tools at its disposal to stay ahead of the curve.



RJ Nichol

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Over the last three decades, Liaison has helped over 40,000 programs on more than 1,200 campuses more effectively manage admissions through its Centralized Application Service (CAS™) technology and complementary application processing and support services. The higher education technology leader supports its partner institutions’ total enrollment goals by pairing CAS with its Enrollment Marketing (EM) platform as well as the recently acquired TargetX (CRM) and advanced analytics software Othot.